South Carolinians prepare for tougher GED

The GED exam, which students can take in lieu of completing high school, is about to get tougher.

Test makers are pegging the exam to the new common core standards, which add depth and rigor to math and language arts teaching standards with emphasis on preparing students for college and careers.

That's just one of the changes in store for the 70-year-old General Education Development test.

Starting in January 2014, the GED will cost more and only be given via computer. Testing outposts across the country will be linked through a digital network that allows students to register and take the test at any of them.

“The whole nature of the test is changing,” said David Stout, South Carolina's adult education director.

Educators want to get the word out about the changes early, so test-takers who have yet to retake parts of the exam they failed the first time get a chance to finish those sections before the current GED expires in December 2013. In 2014, test-takers will have to start fresh, even if they only had one portion of the test left to make up.

Edith Tinker, a 60-year-old Rock Hill resident who wants to study computer networking, took the GED six months ago and passed every section but math. She's thankful for the heads up about the changes. Tinker plans to retake the math portion in December.

“I don't want to start all over,” she said. “I'm too old for that.”

The GED, available to anyone who hasn't earned a high school diploma and isn't enrolled in high school, is made up of five tests — language arts, math, social studies, science and writing. A passing score earns test-takers a high school equivalency certificate.

The American Council on Education, creator of the GED, has partnered with private test-maker Pearson to revamp the test.

Some S.C. adult education centers have started offering Pearson's computerized version of the current test, but many people still take it on paper in one sitting, which can last eight hours.

South Carolina test-takers now pay $80 to take the GED. The new test will cost $150, or $30 per section.

Some worry the higher costs and tougher test might sink scores and slim the ranks of students taking the exam.

That could dampen gains South Carolina has seen in recent years, as the state's GED pass rate rose from 65 percent in 2006 to 77.6 percent in 2011, topping the national pass rate of 72.2 percent.

Stout, the nation's longest-serving GED administrator, expects scores will dip initially, but he believes the new system's benefits outweigh any negatives.

For one, test-takers won't have to tackle all five sections in one sitting. They will have the option to pay and study for each section separately, which, Stout believes, could lead to higher success rates.

“They're not having to bite that whole elephant at one time,” he said

Security should be less of a hassle, Stout said, because there will no longer be stacks of exam booklets to keep under lock and key and monitor.

Testing centers will download the computer exams the night before test dates.

To address concerns about higher costs, GED centers across the state will offer financial aid, Stout said.

Rock Hill's adult education program, for instance, has launched a scholarship fund to help low-income residents pay for the GED, said Director Sandy Andrews.

Test-takers who aren't comfortable with a computerized test will be offered courses ahead of time to prepare.

Several factors are driving the changes.

Chief among them is the common core, a new set of uniform guides for English language arts and math detailing what students should know and be tested on. Forty-five states, including South Carolina, and three U.S. territories are adopting the core, which was coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

They're intended to strengthen, simplify and standardize the hodgepodge of requirements among states. The goal is to produce high school graduating classes of critical thinkers who are ready for college and careers.

The GED, Stout said, “has to mirror what's going on in regular school or we'll be left behind, and it won't be worth the paper it's printed on.”