Education

The Anderson County Adult Education Center is empty on a Thursday afternoon, except for a receptionist, a teacher and the director.

Two years ago, every table in the small classroom might be filled, said Jerry Shaw, the center’s director.

He’d have trouble just walking across the room.

“Every age group, every stage of the test. There were days where it was slow, but that was unusual. Now the days that are slow are the usual,” Shaw said.

The situation is playing out across the state.

The number of Kentuckians passing the General Educational Development test, or GED, has dropped by 85 percent in the last two years, according to the state’s adult education program.

During the 2013 fiscal year, 8,890 students earned GED diplomas.

The current fiscal year ends this month. So far the state has issued only 1,351 diplomas.

State officials say the decrease stems from higher standards, which better align to what students would need to know upon graduating.

But the more difficult test may also have a downside. Shaw said even finding people who want to take the new GED test has become difficult.

“You have to literally go out and try to find people to bring in through various programs, grants working with United Way, working with Family Services,” Shaw said.

“It’s just the word is out on the street that this is not a test that anybody can do.”

Shaw is one of several adult education instructors who say that the test has gotten too difficult.

The GED changed dramatically in 2014 when it was overhauled to align with the  Common Core education standards.

The test now requires better math and science skills. There’s more algebra and geometry—now, test-takers need to know how to balance chemical equations and the reading comprehension sections are more difficult.

On top of that, the entire test is computerized. Shaw said older would-be test takers are intimidated.

“It’s really hard to convince somebody that they can pass this test when their peers are telling them how hard it is. And we’ve seen how hard it is—we as instructors have had to do a lot of work to try and catch up to these standards,” Shaw said.

But Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education officials say the previous GED, which rolled out in 2001, wasn’t rigorous enough and didn’t train test-takers for the job market and college.

The new test more accurately reflects what present-day graduates need to know, said Reecie Stagnolia, vice president for adult education in Kentucky.

“In those 12 years a lot of body of knowledge has occurred and today’s graduating seniors need to have a significant more body of knowledge than they did 12 years ago,” Stagnolia said.

In response to the 85 percent drop in GED diplomas issued, Stagnolia said the system is “reloading the pipeline” with a new crop of students who will finish the GED in coming years.

Jaqueline Korengel, assistant vice president of adult education  said would-be students and educators will need to rise up to the challenge of the new test.

“In order to get more graduates, more people have to get out there and take the test, and I think that initial anxiety both through students and instructors is being overcome at this point and our momentum is growing,” Korengel said.

Switch To Pearson

The major overhaul of the test began in 2011 when for-profit testing company Pearson formed a partnership with non-profit American Council on Education, which has owned the GED since World War II.

The new test was rolled out in 2014 and while the GED graduation rate improved from 78 percent in 2013 to 84 percent in 2014, over the same period the number of diplomas issued dropped from 8,890 to 7,803.

In the 2015 fiscal year, there have been 1,351 diplomas issued, just 11 percent of Kentucky Adult Education’s goal of 12,000.

But the GED isn’t the only high school equivalency test out there.

The Test Assessing Secondary Completion, owned by McGraw-Hill, and Hi-SET, owned by Electronic Testing Service, are used in other states, including surrounding states Tennessee, Indiana and West Virginia.

Kentucky doesn’t offer the other tests,  partly because state education officials aren’t sure about their effectiveness, and partly because “GED” is already written into Kentucky’s laws and regulations, state education officials said.

“We don’t feel that we’re in position that we need to change that language,” Korengel said.

“Certainly if we come to a conclusion after monitoring things and feel that our students need other options and that tests are comparable to what we have as far as a footprint, testing centers, rigor of the test and instruction, then we would be open to looking at those but we don’t intend to pursue that at this point.”

Gary Dawson, director of adult education at Hopkinsville Community College said he’s noticed a decline in the number of clients seeking out a GED.

“I think there was a need for the test to be upgraded, but maybe it’s gone a little too far,” Dawson said.

In order to be admitted to the Kentucky Community and Technical College System students are allowed to use scores from Hi-SET, TASC or the GRE, though the tests aren’t offered in Kentucky.

Dawson said he’s noticed more people in his community crossing over into Tennessee to take the Hi-SET exam.

“It impacts a number of people entering particularly community colleges, it impacts the local economy through these folks not being able to get a good job that’s going to pay a stable wage,” Dawson said.

Legislative Response

Since “GED” is trademarked, any Kentucky law that mentions it refers to the Pearson-ACE test, not any of the other high school equivalency tests.

Lawmakers on the state’s education committees say they’ve only recently become aware of the dramatic drop off in GED diplomas.

State Rep. Derrick Graham, chair of the House education committee, said he found out when his local adult education director in Franklin County reported back with dwindling numbers over the last two years.

“When stuff like that begins to occur I’m concerned, that’s a hell of a dropoff,” Graham said, adding that he wants to look into why Kentucky only offers one of the high school equivalency exams.

“I think that it’s all about competition and who can provide the best services for the least cost and in this case I don’t think that was properly looked at.”

Graham, a Democrat, and state Sen. Mike Wilson, a Republican from Bowling Green who chairs the Senate education committee, said they’re looking into the decline.

“We’re talking to some of the Adult Education folks across the state to try and find some information on it to find out exactly what’s going on,” Wilson said.

This story previously stated that Pearson bought the trademark to the GED in 2011.Pearson formed a partnership with American Council on Education in 2011; the GED was already trademarked by ACE.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.