Understanding Changes In Wisconsin's GED System

New Policy Reflects Data And Changes In Economic Landscape
Disqus Comments
Beth Lewis
Wisconsin Public Television

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction GED administrator Beth Lewis.

The process of earning a high-school equivalency certificate in the U.S. has changed dramatically over the last couple of years, and the transition hasn’t been smooth. The general educational development test, or GED, received a major overhaul in 2014 when it switched to a computer-based system. Administered by the GED Testing Service, a partnership between the nonprofit American Council on Education and for-profit testing company Pearson VUE, the new exam's content also places more emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking, in part to align it more closely with national Common Core education standards.

National Public Radio reported this new test is "by most accounts more difficult," and among the hundreds of thousands of people who take it each year, the number of those passing dropped steeply. In January 2015, a WNYC producer with a master's degree from Columbia University took the new GED and wrote that it left him feeling "exhausted and dumb." He also noted the new test is more expensive. (It's worth noting different reports offer varying numbers on how many people passed the 2014 GED, in part reflecting counts that existed at different times, before various test-taking populations, like the incarcerated, were counted.)

Some states have responded by dropping the GED and adopting other testing systems for high-school equivalency. But the GED Testing Service recently announced that it would allow states to lower the score required to pass, compensating for some of the increased difficulty. Following the change, the score required to pass one of the test's five individual sections would be lowered from 150 to 145. States also have the option to retroactively pass people who previously failed with scores between 145 and 150.

In announcing the change, the GED Testing Service noted that about 25,000 people have scored in that range on the test as a whole since the new GED rolled out in 2014, and 100,000 people have scored in that range on at least one test section.

In a Feb. 26, 2016 interview with Wisconsin Public Television's Here And Now, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction GED administrator Beth Lewis explained why the state is going with the lowered score. One big factor, she told host Zac Schultz, is that a computerized test provides previously unavailable insight into how test scores align with the skills and knowledge people need to earn high-school equivalency.

"For the first-time, we have real time data that tells us that … the grading curve really can be shifted down about five points and still equate to what would be high-school equivalency," Lewis said.

In the interview, Lewis said the other important motivator behind the change is helping more people realize the increased economic opportunity that comes with a higher educational attainment level.

"The number one indicator of poverty for a family is [the] mother's educational level," she said.

In the coming months, Lewis said, DPI will be reaching out to people who previously failed the GED exam but now qualify to pass based on the revised passing score. (Along with the exam, the state's GED program also offers several options to earn a high school equivalency diploma.)

Lewis noted the GED remains an important lifeline for non-traditional learners seeking to improve their lives.

"We have people who didn’t choose not to go to school. Life got in the way," she said.

But even with the change, GED learners still face significant obstacles. A 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report showed that GED recipients earn less and are less likely to get into college than people with traditional high-school diplomas. And as Wisconsin Public Radio's Wisconsin Life explored, the stigma of lacking a high-school diploma presents a formidable emotional hurdle for adults seeking an equivalency certification.

Disqus Comments