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Few Takers For Harder High School Equivalency Test

Charlotte Albright
Joan Scruggs helps Josh Martel fulfill requirements for high school graduation at Vermont Adult Learning center in White River Junction.

There are big changes in the test that’s given to people who have not graduated from high school but want an equivalent degree. The General Educational Development Test, or GED, is harder and more expensive to take than it used to be.

At the beginning of the year the GED got a total overhaul. In addition to multiple choice, the exam now includes five other kinds of questions testing problem solving and critical thinking.

The price has jumped about seventy percent, to about $120 per test, and it has to be taken on an official test site computer—not on paper.

In a typical year, about 900 Vermonters take the GED and most pass it—though it may take a few tries.  But this year so far, very few are even trying. Toni Marra oversees the test for the state of Vermont, and she says fewer than a dozen people have completed it over the past three months.

“But to me that’s not a surprise just because the test is so very  different than what it has been for the past 20-30 years,” Marra said.

The new test relies on content that is just starting to be taught in schools as part of what’s known as the Common Core. That sets a high bar, especially for adults who have been out of school for several years. But Marra says the new test will be a more valuable credential than the old one.

“I mean I think it’s a good switchover, I mean I think there’s going to be some need for transition in terms of  to get people to think that way…You know it’s not just a multiple choice box, you have to think which answer it could be," she noted.

At the Adult Learning Center in White River Junction, that transition is underway. But Instructor Joan Scruggs says the new test is scaring some students, in part because of media reports about how tough it is. Even when it was easier, only about 1 percent of people who are eligible for the test tackled it in Vermont. 

“It’s a hard thing, it’s a scary thing to do in the first place, and when you know the test is made much harder, it’s even tougher to come in and do it,” Scruggs said.

But Scruggs says adult learning teachers throughout Vermont can prepare nervous students for the two-day exam, and help them conquer their fear of test-taking.

“We are changing our instruction, our classes, our lessons so that we will help our students reach those standards,” she said.

Scruggs and other adult ed teachers in Vermont are also reminding students that they have an alternative—for some, a better--route to high school equivalency. Instead of taking a test they can get private tutorials designed in tandem with the high school they left. If they successfully complete that individualized learning plan, they can finish their high school education on their own.

That’s what eighteen-year-old Josh Martel was doing, as Joan Scruggs helped him tackle math problems in a workbook.

“You understand how to do this so [we] are skipping and not doing every single problem,” Scruggs told Martel.  

Martel says he dropped out of Hartford High School because he got into social and academic trouble. Now he is holding down three jobs: at a towing company, a fire department, and Fedex. He says when he dropped out, he made a vow.

“I promised one of my good friends that I wasn’t going to get a GED but get my high school diploma because if I apply for a job then they are going to take me over somebody with a GED.”

That may or may not be true these days, now that the GED is harder than it used to be. But the multiple choice question is whether the test company has a) priced it out of the market, b) scared away customers or c) made long overdue improvements.

It will take time, at least in Vermont, to know the answer.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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