The idea of letting people take a test to show their proficiency in the high school curriculum goes back to World War II, when it allowed people returning from the war to avoid further delays in their career paths.
War is by no means the only thing that can sidetrack someone’s education, so it’s still important to provide an equivalency test and to those who pass it a GED — a general equivalency degree in the old days, now a General Educational Development diploma.
One company, GED Testing Service, used to be the sole provider of the test in New Jersey. An upgrade of its test in 2014 yielded numbers worrisome on their face. Test takers dropped from 16,877 in 2013 to 8,375 in 2015, and the share of those completing and passing the test dropped from 64 percent to 55 percent.
With the upgrade, the cost of the test jumped from just $25 to nearly $100. That alone could suppress the number of takers. And it was also made more difficult, to better reflect the knowledge needed for jobs, including computer skills and critical thinking.
Perhaps some people, hearing a costlier and more difficult test was coming, took it the year before the changes. That year saw a 24 percent increase in GED test takers. And falling jobless rates may have reduced the urgency to get the diploma.
To the extent that the test became more difficult, it’s probably appropriately so. The changes aligned it with the Common Core standards in use in K-12 schools.
The same year the GED test was changed, New Jersey started allowing those seeking an equivalency degree to take one of two new tests instead — the High School Equivalency Test from the Educational Testing Service and the Test Assessing Secondary Completion from McGraw-Hill Education.
Competition is good and can help ensure a test doesn’t become too hard (or people will take a rival’s test) or too easy (and employers or colleges will prefer those who pass a rival’s test).
The higher cost of the revised GED looks about right in this light. The HSET costs $90 and the TASC $92.
Just because these costs are competitive and probably fair doesn’t mean test takers don’t need help. The test predominantly helps lower-income people, for whom a hundred bucks plus other expenses is a big deal. A recent report by the Rutgers University Center for Women and Work recommends that scholarships and subsidies be developed for those who need help with the costs.
Another recommendation is more urgent. There is just one test-taking site each in Atlantic and Cumberland counties. The center recommends more and ones near public transportation. No need to put additional hurdles in the way of people making the effort to improve their life.
If these changes to the equivalency diploma system were accomplished — on top of the improved GED and the availability of two new tests to demonstrate proficiency — the state educational establishment could feel very good about this method of helping people get their education and careers back on track.