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Texas Weighs State-Based Alternative to GED Exam

Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

Texas may soon add one more item to the list of national education practices it has bucked over the years.  

Because of changes coming to the GED in 2014, the Texas Education Agency is putting out feelers to figure out how much a new state-based high school equivalency exam would cost.

Last year, the American Council on Education, a national organization of higher-education institutions that develops the exams, partnered with Pearson, a London-based testing company. They formed a jointly owned entity called GED Testing Services, which has since overhauled the exam in an effort to better test the skills needed in the workplace.

The changes include implementing a two-tiered scoring system — with one performance level based on a traditional high school equivalency and another on college and career readiness —  and a computer-only administration of the test. For many states, test-taking fees will increase to pay for automated scoring and online registration systems. Pearson’s involvement also means that it will now become a for-profit enterprise.

The for-profit aspect is what initially raised a red flag, said Lizzette Reynolds, a deputy commissioner at the TEA. 

“It used to be nonprofit. Now you've got a for-profit company that actually has a financial incentive to recruit more students into taking the GED,” she said. The concern over whether students would be tempted to take an equivalency exam instead of completing high school courses prompted lawmakers in 2011 to pass a law requiring that those taking an online equivalency exam must be at least 18 years old.

Texas, which has the second-largest population of adults eligible to take GED tests after California, also allows former high school students to earn a traditional diploma through virtual schools until age 26. Reynolds said that route, especially in cases where students still had many credits left to complete, was a preferable option to taking an equivalency exam.

C.T. Turner, a spokesman for GED Testing Services, said “the gold standard is still sticking with high school.” The company was not interested in trying to pull students out of a traditional K-12 education, he said, adding that currently only about 2 percent of the population eligible to earn a GED ends up taking the test.

“We are not afraid of people looking for alternatives. Competition is good. States are being asked to do more with less on a lot of fronts,” he said. “There is an emotional reaction right now, because this is a lot of change, in a lot of different ways. But it's because we've been behind the economy and the workforce.”

States like California and New York are also investigating possible moves to a state-based equivalency exam before the 2014 rollout because of similar concerns about cost and the computer-only administration. In Texas, depending on the testing center, it costs $40 to $120 to take a GED. Under the changes coming in 2014, each exam will cost testing centers $120, Turner said, adding that whether the centers choose to subsidize it would be up to them.

The shift to a computer-only exam has particular implications for the prison population, which nationally makes up about 12 percent of GED test-takers. Turner said the test does not have to be taken online, only on a computer. Once administered, the results can be sent over the internet at a separate location.

In Texas, all prison inmates take classes through the Windham School District, and spokeswoman Bambi Kiser said the district was already looking into whether its current infrastructure could support taking the tests on a computer. She said the district did not have any estimates of the costs, but that they would definitely increase. Currently, they are able to pay one fee and use multiple test booklets to administer the tests. Under the new testing system, every test taker would have to pay a new fee. 

The State Board of Education would have to approve any contracts after an official bidding process, and in the meantime, the state has maintained its contract with GED Testing Services. Turner said GED had provided the state with a detailed rundown of how the new exams would align with its curriculum standards. He said Texas is the only state that has requested such a report.

Thomas Ratliff, a Republican SBOE member who represents northeast Texas, said he “absolutely” supported a move to a state-based exam. He said he had concerns about the GED’s rising costs, the computer-only administration and the motives of a for-profit entity controlling it. Questions about how much it would cost to develop a new test and where that money come from, he said, still remain unanswered.

But he added, “I've got to believe that cost is miniscule in comparison to what the increased cost that is coming down if we stay with GED.”

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.
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