Missouri's high school equivalency exam gets a reboot

Dec 23, 2013

computer keyboard
Credit Remko van Dokkum / Flickr

The path to a high school equivalency certificate in Missouri is about to be rewired.

Starting in January the GED exam, which has been used in the state since the 1940s, will be replaced.  It’s a move driven by digital change and an age old consideration -- cost.

Keyboards replace pencils

In 2011, the nonprofit that administers the GED, the American Council on Education, partnered with for-profit education heavyweight Pearson to revamp the GED.  The end result was a digital-only test that ditches the paper-and-pencil version in favor of one intended to measure college and career readiness better  and to align with curriculum changes brought on by adopting Common Core standards.     

It’s a major overhaul for an exam that traces its roots back to preparing Americans for jobs in the post-World War II industrial economy. Today one in every seven Americans have received high school credentials through the GED, according to the GED Testing Service. The number of Missourians taking the GED has steadily grown, too; 12,029 people took the test in 2012, compared to 9,322 in 2003.

With a price tag of $120, the new exam is also more expensive than its predecessor. The old GED cost Missourians $40 an attempt. That meant the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had a choice to make.

“They made a major change to the test and it wasn’t going to be the same contract,” said Tom Robbins, director of adult education and high school equivalency for the department.  “So, when we rebid we were looking for the best price for the comparable test for Missourians.”

The department picked HiSET, which costs $95 a student if all five sections are purchased at the same time and was developed by Education Testing Service. The nonprofit is behind other testing staples like the GRE (for graduate school) and TOEFEL, an English language test.    

Robbins said the department spent the last eight months or so laying the groundwork for the change.

“We’re having the same areas of content,” Robbins said.  “It’s still going to be a reading, math, social studies, science and writing test.  It’s basically the same test, and we’re going to take it on computer instead of via paper.”

Concerns about cost and access

While the switch may be a sign of the way  technology plays a greater role across American education, Christy Jaeger, director of continuing education for St. Louis Community College, has concerns.

"It's a really a diverse age group that is in adult education," Jaeger said.  "There are a lot of people who really haven't had that technology training."

Moving the writing test, for example, from pencil-and-paper to a computer could be a hurdle for some.

“Even though you’re really great with your cell phone, that doesn’t mean that you have great typing and reading and editing skills, or even that you’re very proficient in working with (Microsoft) Word,” Jaeger said.

Money could be a factor, too.  Of the roughly 400 students who take the GED exam at the community college in a normal year, Jaeger said about half would be considered poor.

Though the HiSET is less expensive than the new GED, if a student chooses to pay for all five test sections up front it still costs $55 more an attempt than the old GED. That, she said, might be an added barrier to students looking to use a high school equivalency certificate as an economic springboard.       

“It’s possibly going to become a bit more inaccessible to students based on the cost,” Jaeger said. Those with bank accounts "might not have access to that type of funding.”

While cost was an initial concern of Rhonda Jones, supervisor of adult education and literacy for St. Louis Public Schools, she doesn’t expect many students to suffer from a case of sticker shock.

“We were worried that cost would be a be a concern,” Jones said.  “But the way HiSET has set it up, I really think it will work out fine.”

Jones said with the HiSET students can elect to pay for parts of the exam.

“But It will cost them more than in the long run,” she said.  

A student could pay for a single part of the five-section exam for $22 plus an annual state administration fee of $10, according to department of education.

Jones said they’re also prepared to help students who might not have bank accounts or credit cards register for the new exam.

“The students are going to have to have an email address to create a profile and register online for this test because everything’s done on the computer,” Jones said.  “They can get gift cards and pay for it that way, in case they don’t have a credit card or a debit card.”

She added that there are advantages for test takers.   

“The good thing about this test is that you get your results back instantaneously, except for one part of the English (test) that takes about two weeks,” Jones said.    

So, if test-takers don't clear part of the HiSET, they can immediate reschedule a time to retake an individual section for $7.   

Besides, she said, ensuring everyone who earns a high school equivalency certificate is computer literate will pay dividends down the line.

“Regardless of this test, even if you work in fast food you have to go on the computer to check your schedule,” Jones said.  “Everyone has to know how to use the computer.”

Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter@TimSLloyd

Copyright 2013 KWMU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org.