Education

A dramatic decline in Kentuckians earning GED diplomas over the last two years has led some lawmakers to question the current version of the test, which rolled out in January of 2014.

With a little over two weeks left in the 2015 fiscal year, the state has 85 percent fewer GED graduates than in the 2013 fiscal year.

The company that produces the test, Pearson, said in a promotional video released this spring that the test gives students skills needed to acquire middle-skills jobs—and the previous version did not.

But Rep. Bam Carney, a Republican from Campbellsville, said the new, more rigorous version of the test goes beyond what GED graduates need for entry-level jobs.

“Most of these folks are trying to attain a GED to get employment. Some may go on to post-secondary [education] careers and that’s wonderful if they do,” Carney said.

“The first priority should be helping them to attain what they need to get a job in the workplace, and when the numbers are drastically reduced like we’re seeing, that’s not happening.”

In an email, C.T. Turner, Pearson’s senior director of state accounts and government relations said GED testing numbers were already on the decline before the more rigorous test launched because adult learners, employers and colleges questioned the value of the diploma.

“The new program was created to ensure the test is more equivalent to the skills/knowledge of high school graduates, and works to reinstill confidence in the program with employers, colleges and the military,” Turner said in the email.

The new test is aligned with the Common Core standards, requiring higher level math, science and reading comprehension skills.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said the previous test didn’t provide useful preparation for graduates.

“Adults who get a GED really, economically, are about equivalent to dropouts,” Holliday said of the previous test.

“I think GED responded by increasing the rigor of the assessment when a lot of times it had been seen as an easy way out for young people.”

Holliday pointed to studies conducted by University of Chicago professor James Heckman, who argued that the GED testing program induces high school students to drop out.

Using the old GED test, 10,459 diplomas were earned in the 2009 fiscal year; the number dwindled to 7,083 by the 2013 fiscal year, according to state education numbers.

In 2014, which reflects numbers from both the old and new version of the test (the new GED was implemented on January 1, 2014, which is halfway through the 2014 fiscal year), 7,083 diplomas were attained.

With the 2015 fiscal year ending on June 30, the state has awarded 1,351 diplomas; its goal was 12,000 graduates.

Kentucky postsecondary education officials argue that the drop in GED diplomas is comparable to a drop that occurred in 2001 when the previous version of the test debuted.

But the 2001 drop was about 35 percent, according to education department figures.

State Rep. Derrick Graham, the Democratic chair of the House education committee, recently said he was concerned about the GED situation and was looking into it, including whether the state was offering the “best services for the least cost.”

Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg, said he’s also looking into the matter.

“For us to have this sizable drop indicates maybe more than just a transitional change as we see new testing implemented. It may also indicate that we have real concerns with regard to the mechanisms by which we’re credentialing,” Givens said.

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