On a recent night at Seattle Central Community College, Carl Ellison solved basic math problems on a timed test his teacher gave the class as a warm-up.
Ellison, who is 57 and homeless, has passed four of the five exams he needs to earn a state-issued high-school equivalency certificate.
Math is the only test on the General Educational Development exam he still needs to pass, but time is running out.
Beginning in January, the company that makes the GED test will switch to a new, more difficult exam, one taken entirely on computers. If Ellison doesn’t knock out the math portion by Dec. 31, the four parts he has passed already won’t count and he’ll have to start from scratch on the new test next year.
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He’s part of a surge of test takers around the state trying to finish before the switch-over: About 2,100 people completed the exam in November, which was about double the number from the same month last year.
The makers of the new exam say it will track the common-core learning standards that Washington and most other states have adopted and better gauge the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills many employers are seeking.
In and of itself, passing a tougher GED test won’t erase the stigma that haunts high-school dropouts — that they took the easy way out with a seven-hour test instead of putting in four years for a high-school diploma.
And the hard reality is that even a diploma is not enough nowadays to prepare many job seekers for today’s increasingly technical and competitive market.
Yet the GED certificate is more important now than ever before, because without it, dropouts are no longer eligible for the federal aid many need to earn a job-training certificate or degree.
Earning a GED certificate also provides a less tangible benefit. It’s a chance to prove to themselves what they hope to show a prospective boss: that in an economy that offers little mercy for high-school dropouts, they have both the ability and the perseverance to do the job.
The GED program has changed three times since it was created in 1942 to give veterans who left high school to fight in World War II a credential equivalent to a diploma.
The last change was in 2002.
Beginning in January, the new exam will have four parts instead of five — math, science and social studies, plus a section combining reading and writing.
Adults will have to demonstrate basic computer skills and the ability to use evidence to form arguments.
On the current test, for example, students must write a five-paragraph essay taking a position on some issue. On the new test, they’ll have to read two short passages that take opposing views on an issue and then evaluate which argument is better supported by the evidence.
Here’s something else that’s new: Written answers will be graded by computer software “trained to replicate the human-scoring process” to judge whether the students’ claims are valid and whether their evidence is appropriate, according to the GED Testing Service.
Although the GED system was created to help veterans, the military has been reluctant to admit holders of GED certificates because of decades of research showing they’re more likely to quit the service before fulfilling their commitments.
Their attrition rate in the military — about 45 percent — is only slightly better than that of high-school dropouts, according to Janice Laurence, an associate professor at Temple University who has studied the issue for decades.
By comparison, about a quarter of high-school graduates wash out of the military.
Laurence said a large body of research shows civilian employers may harbor the same skepticism as the military about the reliability of people with GED certificates — but that doesn’t mean passing the test has no value at all.
“If it helps somebody increase their self-esteem, that’s worth something,” Laurence said.
Washington state numbers reflect that sentiment.
Among the 23,000 people who took the GED exam in Washington last year, the most popular reason cited was “personal satisfaction” (35 percent), closely followed by “get better job” (30 percent).
Links in a chain
The new GED test is just one piece of a puzzle the state is trying to solve for adult high-school dropouts wanting a shot at those better jobs.
The state no longer considers diplomas or GED certificates as ends in themselves, but rather as links in a chain that leads to the post-high-school training and education often necessary to earn enough to support a family.
Those links are even more important now because of a change in federal law that affects who can get federal financial aid for college.
Before July 1, 2012, students without a high-school diploma or GED certificate could still qualify for federal financial aid if they met certain conditions, such as having successfully completed six credit hours toward a certificate or degree.
That’s no longer an option for anyone starting classes now.
Carl Ellison has been looking for alternatives since 1972, when his father took him out of high school in Gary, Ind., because it was too violent. He says he’s worked a variety of jobs since then, including several years processing fish in Alaska. Now he wants something that isn’t as physically demanding.
Ellison says he wants to pursue an associate degree that could lead to a job working for an eye doctor or in a store selling eyeglasses.
But he’ll have to pass the GED test before he can get federal aid to help pay the tuition.
His teacher at Seattle Central Community College, Catherine Gribos, said that many of her students have menial jobs and want something better. For some students, just starting something and finishing it is a big deal.
Gribos also teaches GED classes at King County Jail, which had a graduation ceremony Tuesday with caps and gowns and cake for 24 inmates who had passed the test, the biggest group she’s seen, because of the push to get it done before the end of the year.
“You’re a cheerleader, you’re a counselor, you’re everything for this,” she said.
Some of her students, like Ellison, show plenty of perseverance just getting to class.
“He just works himself to the bone,” Gribos said.
Ellison says it’s hard to attend night classes and find time to study while keeping a job and living at a homeless shelter with a strict lights-out policy at bedtime.
But he’s not giving up yet. “I’m going to get it done,” he said.
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jhigginsST