This coming January, the General Education Development test (GED) is set to undergo significant changes. Passing the GED is a requirement for those without a high school diploma to enter military service, enroll in college or obtain an entry level job. Yet in 2011, the American Council on Education (ACE), a national nonprofit organization that has administered the test for the last 70 years, announced a for-profit venture with Pearson Vue, the world’s largest testing company.
The stated reason for the change was to modify the GED to conform to contemporary testing procedures. The new test, however, promises to be less accessible and less affordable, threatening serious consequences for low-income students in Massachusetts.
For the past year, I have been conducting interviews with local youth who dropped out of high school for a project sponsored by the Partnership for Youth, a program of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. The research examined elevated dropout rates in the school districts of Athol, Greenfield, Orange and Turners Falls. Of the survey group, 84 percent of high school dropouts live in poverty and 55 percent have suffered from violence and neglect. Forty percent were bullied in high school and 41 percent had been in the foster care system. One foster youth I interviewed had been moved 43 times, making it virtually impossible to complete his schooling. Most of the young people interviewed had resisted dropping out until events in their lives overwhelmed them.
Currently, the GED costs the student $60. The price for the Pearson Vue test will be $120. Further increases are likely. The increased price does not reflect the investments in software upgrades and curricular materials accompanying the updated test. Taken together, the transition to the new test means that a college education promises to become even less attainable for low-income students.
Adult learning services in Massachusetts are taxpayer-supported. However, with declining funding for education, it is not clear who will pick up the tab for the costs associated with the new test. States like New York and Texas are looking into GED alternatives, including a version called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion Exam which is available for $54 and the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) at $50.
The issue impacts the economic prospects of the region, particularly the hard-hit towns of the Upper Valley. Youth who drop out are more likely to live in poverty, have unplanned pregnancies and suffer higher rates of incarceration. The GED is crucial for disadvantaged young people, but it is also essential for the Commonwealth’s effort to build an educated workforce.
When educational dollars are spread thinner than ever, the new GED comes at a higher ticket price with a lower rate of return. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education needs to review the options to ensure that the high school equivalency test remains accessible, affordable and fair for the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable students.•
Mary King received her Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Massachusetts. She works on the issues of economic justice from her home in Orange.