Like other students cramming for final exams, Alma Hernandez is doing everything she can to pass her General Education Development (GED) test before it’s totally revamped in January.
Hernandez, 29, who moved to the US from Mexico City a decade ago, is one of 39 million adults in the country without a high school diploma. Now, she’s getting one-on-one tutoring in math and science and rushing to complete the exam this month because she’s heard some of the impending changes “are scary.”
“It’s going to be computerized, and the price is doubling next year,” Hernandez says worriedly.
Indeed, prices are set to go up to $120—double what Albuquerque’s Youth Development Inc. currently charges adults like Hernandez to take a bubble test. On top of that, the new GED test, which will be based on the national Common Core standards, will be administered solely on computers. That raises questions about the level of student preparation needed, as well as testing centers’ ability to pay for the necessary hardware. At YDI, for instance, administrators say they’ll no longer be able to offer the test onsite because YDI lacks funding for a computer lab.
All of this has educators around the state concerned about how the 2014 test could impact thousands of New Mexicans—and students are rushing to take the exam before it changes.
“They’re freaking out,” Santa Fe Community College Testing Center Director Susan Lemke says. “They’re coming in droves to see if they can get their GED before the current test expires.”
The original test was developed in 1942 to help World War II veterans bridge the gap to colleges and jobs, but if alternatives aren’t found, high school equivalency diplomas could become out of reach for low-income students who don’t have regular access to computers or can’t pay the $120 fee.
“It might as well be $1,000,” says SFCC Director of Adult Basic Education Letty Naranjo.
The changes come after testing giant Pearson VUE acquired the licensing rights to the GED test two years ago. Now, Pearson—a for-profit corporation that’s also behind New Mexico Connections Academy, a state-funded virtual charter school set to open this fall—has the power to raise fees and impose new testing restrictions for the GED.
While other states are beginning to look for cheaper alternatives, New Mexico may be stuck with the pricier test. Previously a generic term, “GED” is now trademarked—meaning anytime it’s mentioned in state law, we’re talking about Pearson’s test, not just any high school equivalency exam.
“We can’t have private trademarks in state statute,” says state Rep. Rick Miera, D-Bernalillo, who chairs the Legislative Education Study Committee.
Miera and other state lawmakers tried to address that issue during the recent legislative session. Senate Bill 183, carried by state Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Chaves would have removed Pearson’s now-trademarked “GED” language from state law and replaced it with generic language.
Currently, New Mexico contracts with GED Testing Service— a joint venture between Pearson and the American Council on Education—to administer the test. Changing “GED” to “high school equivalency diploma,” lawmakers argued, would have enabled the state to accept bids from other—possibly more affordable—test providers.
The bill passed both houses unanimously, but Gov. Susana Martinez pocket-vetoed it (a process that allows her to take no action on a bill, effectively vetoing it without a written explanation). When SFR asked the governor’s office for an explanation, neither she nor staffers would comment. But Kernan tells SFR that Martinez called her after the session and told her she thought “the bill had confusing language in it, and suggested we look at it again.”
For at least one critic, the blame rests with Martinez.
“If Gov. Martinez really wants to level the playing field with common-sense education reforms and develop a world-class workforce in New Mexico, this plan makes no sense,” says former Lieut. Gov. Diane Denish, a longtime advocate for education reform. She calls it “just an attempt to privatize another part of education in the state,” adding, “No element of this administration’s agenda…addresses closing the education gap and helping people lift themselves out of poverty.”
A quick online search shows many states are seeking ways around the changes. New Mexico isn’t one of them.
In March 2011, when Pearson’s acquisition of the GED was announced, all 50 states used the same test.
Since then, 38 have joined to look for cheaper alternatives.
“Unfortunately, New Mexico is not part of that debate. New Mexico has simply agreed to the program provided by GEDTS,” New Mexico State University GED Coordinator Thomas McGaghie tells SFR. “This issue of turning over the GED nationally to Pearson is going to put a financial stress on many individuals in the state who can least afford it.”
Miera says he wants New Mexico to consider developing its own test.
“States are doing it all over the nation because they’re having the same problem we have,” Miera says. “I would love to be able to have the universities give me a couple of grad students. We can develop our own test. We can collaborate with the Californias and Montanas of the world and say, ‘We’re not going to put up with this.’”
In a letter obtained by SFR, GEDTS Executive Vice President Nicole Chestang explains the rationale behind the new test.
“All of us have long acknowledged that we must raise the bar for adult learners,” Chestang wrote to clients earlier this month. “We believe adults are capable of acquiring the skills necessary to compete, including demonstrating basic technology skills and college and career readiness in 2014 and beyond.”
She points to a pilot test in which students excelled on the computerized exam, adding that the company has evidence that students are passing at a higher rate, finishing the test in less time, and are more likely to retake parts of the test they may have failed.
GEDTS Public Affairs Specialist Armando Diaz says that while Pearson will sell GED tests to states for $120 each, “the state of New Mexico—they actually set the fee,” by deciding whether to subsidize the test.
For now, PED spokesman Larry Behrens says the department “will be examining options” as the current contract with GEDTS draws to a close in December.
“Any provider will have to show a commitment to high academic standards for our students,” Behrens writes in an email to SFR.
But according to at least one company representative, “NM has not opened a proposal opportunity for competitive alternatives to GED.”
Last week, Amy Riker—a program director for test provider Educational Testing Service—wrote in a letter that despite offering the HiSET test (a GED alternative) for just $50, her company has not been asked to submit a bid in New Mexico.
Dual Language Education of New Mexico Executive Director David Rogers forwarded Riker’s letter to colleagues, adding, “I thought it would help to have at least one other company share their perspective on the process for selection here in NM.”
For now, Hernandez is hurrying to complete the exam. She knows that when the current GED tests expire in December, anyone with incomplete scores in one or more sections will have to start over again—at a higher price.