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Time's running out on the old GED

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39 million Americans, a fifth of the population, never completed high school, one of the factors used to measure literacy rates. Of those, only about 1% earn a GED certificate or the equivalent of a high school diploma each year. The test, which has been around since 1942, is poised to undergo major changes to prepare its recipients for a competitive workplace.

For Front and Center, Laurie Stern has this story from Minnesota.

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Kristine Halling is the director of the Hubbs Center, an adult learning and testing site in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Ahmad McGruder is waiting at the reception desk. He tells Halling he’s passed portions of the GED test. He’s here studying to pass the other three. McGruder, who is 38 years old, said, “I came back and I’m making up my four years of school now.”

There’s really no typical GED student. The test was created to help veterans after World War II. Since then, more than 18 million people have passed the GED test. They’re teenagers and seniors, native-born and immigrant, rural and urban. However, according to Halling, most have one thing in common. She said,“90 % are living in poverty; generational poverty is huge in the Am-born population, and we’re trying to break that cycle. Immigrant pop is situational and we do not want to see it turn into generational poverty.”

Ericka Coleman is another student at the Hubbs Center, and she said, “I am here getting my GED because I didn’t finish high school. I had a mother on drugs, I was taking care of her and not focusing on school; the last grade I completed was 11th. I am now 21 years old.”

Coleman is trying to break that cycle of poverty. To prepare for the GED, she’s been brushing up on the three R’s for more than a year. She passed the reading test. She has math, social studies, writing and science to go. But, like more than a million students currently waiting to take the GED, she’s working against a clock.

“The only changes I’ve heard is that if you don’t finish all your tests by Dec 31 of next year then you have to start all over,” said Coleman. She’s right. The old test is being retired for good at the end of 2013. The reason is that employers and educators say they’re looking for computer and critical thinking skills that many GED recipients don’t have.

Randy Trask is the president and CEO of the GED Testing Service, a group working with the developer of the test to administer it. Trask said, “Clearly something’s wrong if employers were looking for skills that graduates don’t have right now. He says the new GED will require students be analytical when they read, and creative when they do math. Social studies answers may require calculation. That’s the same idea behind the state-led “Common Core” teaching standards.

“The studies they did that led to the standard was all about positioning American graduates to be competitive globally. There’s a direct correlation between what high school and GED will measure and skills and knowledge necessary to compete in global workforce and do well in college,” said Trask.

There will be two thresholds of passing. Students can get a certificate that says they’re ready to work or, if they score better, a diploma that says they’re ready for college. The new test will be offered only online, which adds digital literacy to the skills it will measure. For places like the Hubbs Center, it means using scarce budget money to update curriculum and install computers and the software needed for testing.

Kristine Halling expressed additional worries, and said, “I just want to make sure that as we change standardized testing there’s a true understanding of who’s taking that test, ‘cause if the learner isn’t at the center of what you’re doing, there might be a disconnect.”

McGruder wants to go to college and learn how to market music internationally. He said, “I want to be 100% in life. Education, you need it to be 100%. You can take it as high as you want to, you just got to want to be something.”And if he gets his GED, that might be a realistic goal. Historically, GED recipients earn slightly less than high school graduates but far more than dropouts.

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