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2015 November 17 - 03:41 pm

Declining Numbers of Students in Mississippi Take, Pass GED Test

More Rigorous and Expensive Test Blamed for Steep Decline

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In a state where 14 percent of adults haven’t graduated high school, the GED test is a lifeline for many Mississippians hoping to improve their job skills and better their lives.

But changes made to the GED test in 2014 have led to nine times fewer Mississippians passing the test. The test is now more rigorous, expensive and solely computerbased.

In Mississippi, the General Educational Development exam, developed by the Washington, D.C.-based GED Testing Service as a high school equivalency exam, is the only alternative option to a high school diploma. The Mississippi Community College Board uses the federal funding it receives to pay 28 programs to provide test preparation for potential test takers.

The test was revised to align with Common Core standards, which require a higher level of critical thinking. The cost for the test also increased from $75 to $120, and the paper-based option was eliminated.

The GED Testing Service changed the test after research showed that GED graduates from the old test had the same earnings as high school dropouts, not high school graduates, said C.T. Turner, a spokesperson for the company.

Turner said the hope is that the more rigorous test leads more GED graduates to obtain a postsecondary credential such as a certificate or community college degree, which fewer than 12 percent of the old test takers were obtaining.

He also mentioned that federal funding for states’ adult education programs, which prepare people to take the GED, will soon be determined based on outcomes of test takers a year after passing a high school equivalency test. Before, funding was appropriated based on the number of people who passed the tests.

In Mississippi, 8,479 people passed the test in 2013, up more than 2,000 from the previous year. In 2014, however, only 872 people passed.

Although the numbers for 2014 were low in Mississippi, Community College Board spokesman Kell Smith said in comparison, the numbers in 2013 were unusually high. Many test takers who started the test that year had to finish it before the changes went into effect the following January to avoid having to start over.

“When we switched (to the new test), it was lower. And I think a lot of that has to do with one, people being hesitant and two, folks that had to have it passed it would have done that in 2013,” Smith said.

Turner said changes in the new test could also account for the lower pass rate. The GED is made up of four sections: Reasoning Through Language Arts, Mathematical Reasoning, Science and Social Studies. Before 2014, if a person scored below 150 on one section, they could use extra points from another test to achieve a passing rate.

Now, however, students must meet the 150 benchmark on each test.

Tina Smith of Poplarville started taking GED prep classes at Pearl River Community College in February. The classes ended in April, and she passed the entire test by May.

Like many others, she had to take the math portion twice before passing.

“With math, it’s just because I honestly had such a low education I hadn’t seen most of it before. But you really have to teach yourself what you’ve never seen,” Tina said, though she noted her instructors were a big help.

Tina had an eighth-grade education before completing the GED.

She said completion of the test opened a lot of doors, including the job offer she received as a learning lab assistant at the community college.

Before this job, she worked at grocery stores and cleaning houses.

“Honestly, anything that didn’t require a diploma. Your doors really open up once you get it,” she said.

Tina is also enrolled and taking classes in the Business Office Technology program.

She said she can see how the increased cost would pose a problem for some, but she made sure to schedule her tests far enough apart to accommodate her budget.

One area where the test changes made a particularly large impact is in prisons. Currently, nearly half of inmates in the Mississippi Department of Corrections do not have a high school diploma.

All state prisons and regional facilities have GED programs serving inmates with a ninth-grade education and above. But from July 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015, only 81 inmates passed the GED test, an 82 percent decrease from 457 during the previous year.

“This test is based on depth of knowledge, and it’s based on Common Core. And it just requires a higher level of critical thinking,” Pat Owen, director of education at MDOC, said of the new test.

Owen also said no tests were administered from January to October of 2014 because of preparation for the new test, partially contributing to the decrease.

Owen added “there’s no way you can take the test if you don’t have some computer skills,” which prompted MDOC to offer computer literacy courses for inmates.

A former GED teacher at the Hinds County Detention Center said the changes in the test have negatively impacted inmates at the downtown Jackson jail.

Cathy Johnson, who taught in the downtown jail for 20 years, said 50 of her students obtained GEDs while she was there. But after the changes took place, none did.

Her students used to be sent to the Raymond facility to take the test, but that stopped in 2014.

When asked about the availability of GED tests at the jail, Hinds County Chief Deputy Chris Picou said they are not required to provide preparation and testing the same way prisons are.

“We need to remember this.

Raymond Detention Center is just that—a detention center. It’s not a prison. Inmates should not be there long enough to go to a GED program,” Picou said.

Picou said the jail is required to provide a GED program for juveniles, and the Raymond facility has about 15 to 20 computers for that purpose.

Johnson remembers one success story well: a female student who obtained her GED under Johnson but then disappeared. For a while, Johnson didn’t know what happened to her until another inmate told her the student had been killed after being released.

Then, one Sunday months later, Johnson’s cat had a seizure and she took her to a vet clinic. There was no veterinarian at the clinic that Sunday, but Johnson was told to go ahead and lay the cat on the table, and in walked a vet technician.

“So I take her in, lay her on the table, and in walks Shelly (the student),” Johnson said, laughing.

“So with her GED, she had gotten a job at this vet clinic and is still doing well.”

Educators are hopeful more people will take and pass the test in 2015 and point to current statistics that show 852 people passed the GED from January to July of this year, as opposed to the 872 who passed the test in all of 2014.

Nationally, the creators of the test insist that, despite a slow start, more people will take and pass the test as states and teachers adjust to the new model. And they say they’re already seeing improvements among those who have passed the test.

“We have early indicators that we’re making progress on better preparing adult learners for jobs today but also to be ready to enter and succeed in college and career training programs,” C.T. Turner with the GED Testing Service said.

Turner cites a 2014 survey of GED graduates that shows a ``higher percentage than ever’’ are enrolling in community college and certificate programs and are reporting to be satisfied with the job they are in after passing the test.

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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