The GED is easy? Wait until Jan. 1; students have to pass existing sections soon or face tougher exam

Saturday, October 13, 2001
Page 1A

The GED is easy? Wait until Jan. 1
Students have to pass existing sections soon or face tougher exam

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Potential dropouts will have another reason to stay in school starting Jan. 1.

On that day, a tougher version of the General Educational Development test – the GED – takes effect, the first major change in 14 years.

“We always hear people say, ‘Well, my friend took the GED, and he didn’t have any problem,'” said Steve Johnson, who supervises a GED preparation program in Denton.

“I think now they’ll think twice before dropping out,” he said. “The test isn’t going to be easy for everybody.”

As a result of the impending change, GED classes and testing centers are seeing huge increases. About 40 students are usually enrolled in Denton’s GED program, Mr. Johnson said. Now there are 120, an all-time high.

“We’re kicking it into high gear,” said Delois Zachary, a GED instructor at Dallas Can! Academy.

The changes are designed to bring the test up to date with what today’s high schools require and what businesses want in employees. For example, there will be more questions on history and civics, tougher science and essay portions, and math questions that are not multiple choice.

The new test also addresses a criticism some have leveled at the GED: It might cause some high school students to drop out because they think the test is an easier path to a diploma.

The exam, administered by the GED Testing Service, was created in 1942 to give returning war veterans a way to get the equivalent of a high school diploma without re-enrolling in a school with teenagers. But over the last two decades, the number of people taking the GED has gone up substantially – last year it was more
than 800,000 – and the typical GED test taker has gotten closer to high school age.

The deadline is especially pressing for those who have passed some portions of the exam. The GED consists of five tests, and students are allowed to take them separately – passing math and writing one day, then tackling science, social studies, and reading later, for example. A student receives a GED upon passing all five sections, even if it takes months or years.

A clean slate

But at midnight Dec. 31, those who haven’t completed all five tests will have their records wiped clean. Even if they’ve passed four of the five, they’ll have to start over. That has inspired some to head back to the classroom.

“I’m trying to hurry up and get out of here,” said Terance Robinson, 19, a Skyline High School dropout who has only the math test left to pass.

“I saw what they have on next year’s test, and it was real hard,” said Ian Johnson, 18, who dropped out of Roosevelt High School and has two of the five test sections to take. “So I need to get it now.”

The last major changes in the GED came in 1988, but students who passed parts of the test before that date were allowed to carry over their results. That won’t happen this time, and instructors expect the new test to be significantly more difficult than the existing one.

“Our passing rate now is pretty good, about 90 percent,” said Dorris Baker, who coordinates the Dallas school district’s GED program. “But I expect that to drop significantly – to maybe 40, 50 percent.”

About 40 people have enrolled in Elana Ingram’s GED class at the Skyline library branch, up from about 25 a year ago, and in the last two months, she has turned away about 10 others for lack of space.

“I have students coming in every day wanting to enroll,” she said. “If they’re just a few points away from passing, they’re anxious to get it done now.”

All booked up

Fort Worth’s testing center is booked for the rest of October, and officials are doubling up their capacity for November and December. The same phenomenon is taking place across the country. Lyn Schaefer, director of test development for the GED Testing Service, said testing centers in New York are booked for the remainder of the year.

“Right now, most centers in Texas are swamped; everybody’s trying to get in,” said Georgia Paris-Ealy, director of the GED unit at the Texas Education Agency.

Mr. Johnson, who supervises the Denton program, said teachers expected a light turnout for a class on the night of Sept. 11. Adult education classes often have poor attendance, and the day’s events made most people want to stay home.

“But we didn’t have a single empty seat,” he said. “Not that whole week. Those people are committed to passing that test.”

Juanita Garza, 19, a Sunset High School dropout who expects to take her first tests at Dallas Can! this week, said she hopes the GED will let her leave her cashier’s job and go to college to study computers.

“I don’t want the test to be any harder than it has to,” Ms. Garza said. “You have to set your mind on your work and get it done.”

The transition to the new test is stressful for teachers as well as students. Instructors must be trained on what the test will cover and how it will be graded. Many aren’t sure what changes will be made; training sessions are scheduled for many later this month.

Some instructors are having to make difficult decisions about their students. Do they have a chance to pass by December? If so, teach them the existing test. If not, start them on the new material.

“You’ve got to figure out quickly where people are and play a game to see who you feel comfortable pushing quickly,” said Jesse Cummings, Fort Worth’s program director for adult education.