Why a privatized GED will fail students

Monty Vyse reports on the fallout from the takeover of GED testing by for-profit Pearson Education--and what it will mean thousands trying to take the exam each year.

A student works on the GED test

SINCE THE 1940s, adult learners who have left high school without a diploma have had the option of taking the General Educational Development (GED) test. Nearly 700,000 people took the GED test in 2011--about half are Black or Latino.

Test-takers come disproportionally from under-funded, urban school districts. In New York state, for example, 63 percent of GED test-takers last year were in New York City. The average age for test takers is 26, making the GED a vital resource for adult learners in the workforce.

In 2011, Pearson Education, the world's largest for-profit testing company, entered into a "partnership" with the non-profit American Council on Education, the parent organization that created GED Testing Service, which in turn develops and sells the GED to all 50 states and U.S. territories.

What really happened is that Pearson executed a takeover of GED Testing and installed a Pearson executive to run its new "partner," with the test now being developed by Pearson and sold through GED Testing, with the copyrighted GED name.

This is a familiar story in education, as for-profit companies, bolstered by neoliberal think tanks, lobbyists and "strategic philanthropy," have moved aggressively to seize "business opportunities" in charter school operation, testing and test preparation, outsourced school management functions and "distance learning." The result, as in the case of many online universities and "proprietary" (i.e., for-profit) colleges, is that predatory business practices are common, and in all cases, resources are diverted from education to executive salaries and shareholder return.

What Pearson has done, however, is distinguished by the magnitude of its achievement. In a maneuver worthy of a 19th century robber baron or a 1980s junk bond king, Pearson acquired a virtual monopoly on high school equivalency testing.

Pearson's next step was similarly old school. It announced that, effective January 1, 2014, the GED will move almost completely from a paper-and-pencil test to a computer-based test. A transition to such technology has long been expected, but Pearson's use of its monopoly to impose its deadline took the states by surprise.

Even more shocking was the announcement that, as of 2014, the cost per test-taker would be a flat $120 nationwide. This is about double the current cost, which has varied somewhat from state to state. One of GED Testing's customers, New York State Education Commissioner John King, said, "We're a capitalist system, but this is worrisome."

Pearson attempts to justify the change by citing the need to align the content of the test to the "common core standards" now being implemented throughout the country, and the change to computer testing.

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IF PEARSON is able to maintain its monopoly, and the number of test-takers remains constant, Pearson would realize about $84 million annually in revenue. But of course, the number of test-takers will certainly decline.

In four states and Puerto Rico, test-takers are not charged a fee for taking the test, or for re-taking the test or any sections they failed. The new director installed at GED Testing by Pearson helpfully suggested that these states consider allowing a fee for test-taking.

In the case of New York, state law prohibits charging a fee, but the state has signaled that it will not increase the $3 million it currently budgets for GEDs. If the cost doubles, therefore, the number of test-takers must halve. People will face longer waits to take the test and, presumably, fewer will end up doing so.

In the majority of states, a fee is charged. Among the states and territories that publish a set fee, the average is $59. If the cost increases dramatically, both because of the GED Testing price hike and the need to invest in new technology, there is likely to be a dramatic rise in fees across the country.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for an adult with less than a high school diploma was $20,329 in 2011, so this group has little ability to absorb a substantial increase in cost. Many are likely to be unemployed, because the unemployment rate for workers without a high school diploma is nearly double the national average.

Equally significant is the re-test fee, which will be a flat fee per sub-test. Many test-takers pass one or more of the four content area sub-tests and have the opportunity to take the portions they have failed over again. In the states that report a flat fee for re-taking, the average cost is $19.

Pearson hasn't yet announced what the fee will be, but GED Testing offers a computer-based version of its current test to states for $24 per subtest. If it runs true to form, Pearson will substantially increase this cost for its new test. Since the fee is applied not only to the payment to GED Testing but to the cost of administering the test, we can expect the re-test fees charged at the test sites to increase substantially, adding to the burden on test-takers.

Another unknown is the impact on test-takers in detention or correctional facilities. Taking the GED is usually the only way a youth or adult in custody can earn a diploma, and many currently do so. More than 10,000 federal prisoners completed the GED in 2011, and Michigan alone had another 3,000.

The changes Pearson is mandating will require test administration sites to set up networks or configure their networks to ensure the ability to run the test. There are huge challenges for custodial institutions, which either lack classroom networking, or which can't readily be made consistent because of unusual security features.

It's not clear whether corrections departments will be willing to make the investment Pearson is demanding. If they are not, and if no alternative is identified, Pearson will have further restricted the opportunities--already tragically limited--of victims of incarceration.

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TWENTY-SEVEN states formed a subgroup of the National Governor's Association to look for an alternative, essentially seeking to break Pearson's monopoly. So far, only New York has taken the next step of issuing a Request for Proposals to find a vendor for high school equivalency testing. As the largest state that pays the full cost, New York is seeking to use its leverage as a customer to create competition, with other states waiting to see what happens in New York.

It's clear, however, that whoever enters the market will be pricing the test close to Pearson. The development of a new norm-referenced test, with test-taking to begin in a year, is a massive undertaking, and only large for-profit testing companies seem to be positioned to respond. Pearson, moreover, has given them a price to beat that is double the current cost.

The impact of alignment with the "common core standards" is also a significant unknown. The common core is an initiative to develop a consistent curriculum standard in English and math. Some 46 states have signed on, committing to base 85 percent of their curriculum on the standards by 2015.

Pearson, along with any competitors that may emerge, will be aligning the GED (or competing high school equivalency test) to the standards. For the foreseeable future, a significant number of test-takers will have left school years before instruction was aligned to the common core, so some aspects of the test may be extremely difficult, because the common core has changed the approach to the subject matter.

The rapid alignment to the common core will increase the need for test preparation. In New York City, roughly 70 percent of test-takers have not taken a prep course. The pass rate for these takers is considerably lower than for those who take a course, and the gap can be expected to grow with the content changes. Community-based providers of test prep will be stretched beyond their limits, and for those able to pay, for-profit prep companies--some with a record of predatory consumer practices--will see that there is money to be made.

Whatever happens, the introduction of profiteering to the GED will restrict access and opportunity for working-class youth and adults throughout the country. Currently, only about 1 percent of those eligible to take the GED actually complete the test each year. The introduction of profiteering will make it even harder for adults and youth disconnected from school to earn a diploma.

It's vital that parents, students, educators and adult learners organize to resist the "reforms" that are making education a series of emerging markets and profit opportunities. The call for adequate resources for education for learners of all ages should be accompanied by the demand that the system not be gamed to enable those resources to be skimmed by educational robber barons.