Schooled

01.13.15 10:45 AM ET

Ivy League Grads Can’t Pass the New GED

A corporation privatized the test, made it four times more expensive, and made it almost impossible to pass. Trust me.

The number of people who passed the GED—the high school equivalency test long seen as a “good enough diploma”—plummeted this year. About 86,500 people passed the new test in 2014, compared with 540,535 in 2013.

The GED administered in 2014 was dramatically tougher than its previous iteration, which had been in use since 2002. The GED Testing Service overhauled the test to align with Common Core standards and rebut a growing consensus that the test didn’t actually indicate if someone had learned what they would have in high school.

The new test is hard for high-school dropouts, sure. But what would it be like for those of us who made it through high school and college?

I’m a reasonably smart person: I scored 1370 on my SATs back in high school, went to a good college, just got a master’s degree from Columbia, and tend to be a strong member of a bar trivia team. So I searched online, found a test aligned with the new, harder GED, and printed out the 169-page behemoth. I figured I’d spend a couple hours on Saturday working through the test and ace the thing. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I spent nearly seven hours taking the test, wracking my brain for details I haven’t thought about since 2005, when I graduated from high school. When it was all over, I felt exhausted and dumb.

I did well on one test (social studies) and got about 60 percent of the questions right on two more (math and science). The test in which I thought I’d shine brightest—language arts—was my worst subject: I got just over half the questions right. If this were the real GED, I’d need to retake at least one of the tests. A lot of states—New York included, which is why I had to take a practice test—have dropped the GED as their high-school equivalency test, opting for cheaper alternatives from groups like the Educational Testing Service and McGraw-Hill. The GED, long administered by the nonprofit American Council on Education, is now a joint venture by them and the for-profit testing giant Pearson.

The GED, first developed as a test for soldiers during World War II, has for decades been a key first step for a high-school dropout to turn his or her life around. A credential necessary for many jobs or career-training programs, passing the GED provides an opportunity to move out of a demographic with low salaries and the nation’s highest rates of unemployment. Inmates serving prison sentences—80 percent of whom are dropouts—are less likely to reoffend if they earn a GED while behind bars.

But the GED was being taken less and less seriously in the years before its overhaul. Colleges and employers didn’t see it as a reliable replacement for a high-school education, so it was becoming a less valuable credential for those who passed. Research by the GED Testing Service showed that people who passed the GED didn’t catch up with those with a high-school diploma until they went on to get some post-secondary degree or certification. The company’s spokesman, CT Turner, said the new test is a better indicator of high-school equivalence when it was tested on high-school seniors.

“So the question isn’t, Is it harder or easier? It’s, Does it measure high-school equivalence?” Turner said.

Those numbers—and the 454,000-person year-over-year dropoff in graduates—are slightly different from ones reported last week by NPR and other news organizations. Though the final scores aren’t ready, the GED testing service has updated its estimates. And 10 fewer states used the GED in 2014, compared with 2013, when it was the nation’s only high-school equivalence test.

But the new test is also significantly more expensive than before. One test costs about $120, up from costs closer to $30 (the specific price varies from state to state). Since it’s harder, test-takers are more likely to need to take the test again to pass all four sections, and a new scoring method means a high score on one test will no longer buoy a lower one on another.

That high sticker price seems likely to keep test-takers from returning a second time: 85 percent of people who failed the cheaper, easier test already didn’t come back to try again, Turner said. And while results of the old GED just gave a score, the new computerized test comes with a customized study guide showing exactly what test-takers should study before trying again.

There’s money in that, too. Pearson also sells test prep books and courses for all four new GED tests.

Part of the reason the GED is so hard is that it tests what you learn in high school, and most of what you learn in high school simply does not come up again in real life. Today I mostly use math to figure out the tip at a restaurant or divide bills among my roommates. And while I write for a living, I don’t often talk about specific verb tenses or perform close readings on 19th-century literature. Plus the test is aligned with Common Core, a set of standards not in place when I and nearly all my fellow test-takers were in high school.

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When I took the GED, I did the worst on its first section, which tests reading comprehension. I got just 16 of 40 questions right: definitely not a passing score. I struggled to even comprehend some of the passages, like an 1849 essay by English author Thomas de Quincey on the virtues of a sudden death. (By the end of the day-long test, I too would’ve been more open a quick, painless end to my troubles.)

Other parts of the test I just disagreed with. I got a grammar question wrong because I put the title of a TV show in quotes, but didn’t also underline it. (Seriously, no one would write “Master Chef” like this, especially not underlined, yet that’s what the answer sheet on my practice test called for.) And while I, an adult writer working in the real world, can argue about something like that with my editor, there’s no back and forth with the test. Your answer is right or it’s wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Math felt even harder. I remembered the Pythagorean theorem, but I would’ve otherwise been hopelessly lost without the cheat sheet of formulas that comes with the math GED. Sometimes I’d feel like I was doing well, balancing equations in a way that’d make my math teachers proud, then my answer wouldn’t even show up as a multiple-choice option. Other answers I got by pure luck or educated guesses.

Nearly four hours into the test, I switched into science and social studies, 90-minute tests that covered things like photosynthesis and the Louisiana Purchase. These tests ultimately felt like more of an afterthought, which aligns pretty well with the Common Core, which stresses math and English over other disciplines. The questions started blurring together and I started working faster, partly because I had less mental stamina to think deeply about the harder questions and partly because I just wanted to be done.

The entire experience was not at all fun. I can see why so few people try again.

Ultimately, the test crams four years of material into one day. Most people taking it study for months, if not years. By its nature, it’s got to be grueling. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat, though I’d likely have to if I were taking the test for real. My math and science tests were borderline at best. I definitely didn’t pass the language arts test, and I do “language arts” for a living. I have a master’s degree in one of them.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated my high school diploma more.

Matt Collette is an education reporter and radio producer in New York.