GED update makes climb to success more difficult Fewer took or passed exam after revamp, but raising bar has benefits

Sylvia Martinez makes her way to a home she was cleaning on Friday in Mount Pleasant. Martinez, who works as a housekeeper, has gone back to school to earn her GED.

Eighteen people signed up for Monday’s 5 p.m. GED orientation class at Trident Literacy Association in North Charleston. By 5:15 p.m., only five prospective students had showed up.

Paulette Rhoton, the GED test administrator at Trident Literacy’s North Charleston branch, stood in front of the small classroom, where she mounted three blank sheets of paper on a dry-erase board. She wrote the word “goals” in big, blue, underlined letters on top of one poster and started asking each student what his or hers were “beyond the GED.”

“Everyone sitting in here has a different goal,” she said. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

For Sylvia Martinez, that was an easy question to answer. The harder ones would come later. Like hundreds of students who enroll in adult education and GED classes at Trident Literacy every year, Martinez, 38, who cleans houses for a living, wants a better job – one with health benefits and paid vacation.

“If I get my education, maybe I can work as a cashier or at a bank, or I can get some training and be a nursing assistant and work my way up,” she said. “Where I am right now, I don’t think I can keep going up.”

But going back to school won’t be easy, especially now. Changes to the GED, or General Educational Development, exam have made earning an equivalent to a high school diploma increasingly out of reach for Trident Literacy’s most disadvantaged students, the majority of whom, according to Executive Director Eileen Chepenik, live in poverty and start below the eighth-grade level in basic reading and math skills. Across the U.S., the number of people taking high school equivalency exams plummeted — and the percentage who passed fell, too — in the year after a revamped, Common Core-inspired GED test was introduced along with two new competing tests.

Test administrators say a rush by people to take the old exam in 2013 before the newer ones were rolled out resulted in fewer test takers in 2014. And the harder questions on the new exams led to lower scores.

The GED was overhauled last year to reflect some of the Common Core standards that have been adopted by most states and emphasize critical thinking. In 2014, two new high school equivalency exams that also incorporate some of those standards were introduced by other testing companies.

All three tests require students desiring a diploma to show higher-level skills, such as writing essays using evidence they pull from reading materials they are given. In math, students must interpret data and plot equations to solve problems.

Some of the before-and-after results nationally over the past three years:

In 2012, before any changes were announced, 581,000 people took the GED exam, and 69 percent passed.

In 2013, 713,000 people took the GED exam, many rushing to get in ahead of the changes, and 76 percent passed.

In 2014, the first year of the changes, 316,000 people took one of the tests, with about 62 percent passing, regardless of which exam they took.

In South Carolina, the cost to take the overhauled GED exam increased from $80 to $150 and is only available to take by computer now. Both of these changes pose problems for students who can’t afford the higher fee or aren’t comfortable with computers.

The most recent statewide data on GED testing results is still incomplete, but Dino Teppara, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education, said the state’s numbers so far reflect the national trend. In 2013, about 8,700 people earned their GED certificate — a 16 percent jump from the previous year. In 2014, when the new, computer-based GED test rolled out, just over 1,300 people took home a high school equivalency diploma.

This year, however, GED testing is picking back up, according to Teppara. More than 500 people in South Carolina earned their GED in the past four months. The tougher test also has yielded some unexpected benefits for college-bound test-takers.

“Several adult education directors have reported that former adult education students are reporting greater success on entrance tests at the local technical colleges,” Teppara wrote in an email. “We do think that because the new GED test is more demanding, it is raising the bar for those taking it and moving on to the next level of their education. “

With word that the new GED test would cost more and move from paper and pencil to computer, several states, including South Carolina, went looking for alternatives to what had been the only game in town since 1942. The TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion), offered by CTB/McGraw-Hill, was added in November by the South Carolina Board of Education to the state’s list of approved high school equivalency exams. Like the GED test, the TASC test is also based on Common Core standards, but unlike the GED test, it offers a paper and pencil version. It’s also cheaper — about $50 less than the new GED test. The Education Department expects that the TASC test will be available for students to take as early as this summer.

“We’re all looking forward to the new one coming out,” Chepenik said “It’s more adaptable to the people in our population.”

Martinez dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work alongside her parents, migrant farm workers from Mexico, in the strawberry fields of Plant City, Fla. Growing up, she moved from state to state with her family as the seasons changed, and hardly spent more than three or four months at the same school. She was always behind in class and never had a chance to catch up. By the time she and her husband settled in the Lowcountry, she knew she wanted to give all three of her children the kind of stable education she never had.

“I don’t want them to miss out on life like I did,” she said.

Martinez works as a housekeeper at high-end homes in Mount Pleasant and summer houses on the Isle of Palms and Folly Beach. Over the years, she thought several times about going back to school and getting her GED. The last time was in 2013, at an adult education center in Summerville, but she was older than the rest of the students and felt overwhelmed and out of place. Then her in-laws in Mexico got sick and her father was diagnosed with cancer. She couldn’t afford to cut back her hours.

Now, as her youngest child prepares to graduate from high school next year, and with her family’s support, Martinez says the timing is finally right. And she likes Trident Literacy because the classes are small, she said; she feels comfortable. Martinez, who jokes about using a flip phone that she carries tucked in her bra strap instead of a smart phone, has started practicing using a laptop every night.

Last week, she took the TABE (Tests of Adult Basic Education) assessment at Trident Literacy and didn’t have time to finish. She had a hard time sitting still at the computer for three hours straight. Grammar and spelling aren’t her strong suit. And she couldn’t quite remember the rules for adding decimals and fractions. Her brain felt rusty, like it was “full of spiderwebs.”

Earning her GED will be a big challenge, she says, but she’s up to it.

“I believe it’s my time to do it. ... I have to do it for me,” she said. “I just got to be patient with myself.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.