Fewer than 3,000 high-school dropouts in Washington passed the competency test known as the GED last year, down from nearly 16,000 the year before.

Share story

In 2013, 18,474 high-school dropouts in Washington state took a wide-ranging exam known as the GED to earn a high-school certificate. About 86 percent — nearly 16,000 — passed.

For years, passing that exam has been a common — and in some places, the only — path for a dropout to earn a high-school certificate later in life.

Yet last year, just 4,014 people took the test, and only 71 percent — 2,850 — succeeded.

Numbers dropped nationally, too. Roughly 540,000 adults earned a GED certificate in 2013, as opposed to 140,000 in 2014.

One big reason for the difference: In 2014, the company that makes the test, called the General Educational Development exam, or GED, switched to a new, more difficult test, one taken entirely on computers. The company acted after reports that the exam had become too easy.

The goal was to ensure that students who pass the test will be better prepared to tackle college-level courses and will spend less time and precious financial aid catching up through remedial courses that don’t count toward a degree.

Employers were losing confidence in the GED, said CT Turner, a spokesman for GED Testing Service, the for-profit venture that now backs the tests.

“It didn’t hold the same sway it used to,” Turner said. “And beyond that, was it really preparing adults for what they face next?”

But the change has led to the big drop in test-takers for a number of reasons.

Some say efforts to warn students of the new test’s difficulty — while well-intentioned — morphed into a cloud of anxiety that kept many would-be test-takers at home. Some states scrapped the GED in favor of other tests.

The exam also got more expensive to take.

Part of the drop also may be just a temporary blip, which experts say often happens when a test changes and students hurry to take it before a harder version arrives.

This year, the number of students taking the test is slowly starting to rebound. About 560 people in Washington passed the GED during January and February. During the same time last year, only 196 people did so.

But in Washington, at least part of the drop may be more permanent.

Already, about 1,200 students here are opting for a new program that allows them to skip the seven-hour GED and instead earn high-school credit through a combination of taking a few classes and getting credit for skills they’ve picked up since leaving high school.

Hope for a better life

The desire — and need — for many dropouts to seek a high-school diploma or certificate is clear.

Elizabeth Laed, for example, said job descriptions she reads all seem to say one thing: Must have a high-school diploma or equivalent.

Laed, a 58-year-old native of the Philippines who left school at 17, has neither.

After losing her longtime office job last fall, Laed is now studying at Highline Community College to pass the GED, struggling with concepts she hasn’t studied in years, like proportions and square roots.

Laed now faces a steeper climb to pass the exam, given that it’s harder and she will have to retake the subjects she passed in her first try about 10 years ago. Any students who passed some but not all subject areas on the old test now have to start from scratch.

Laed’s teacher, Lilian Egbejimba, once coached more than half her class through the GED test in about six months.

Now she’s thrilled when even one student passes in that amount of time.

The new GED is harder in part because it follows a new, tougher set of learning standards in reading and math known as the Common Core. Washington is one of many states using those standards as the bar for what students must know before graduating from high school.

The Common Core — and hence the new GED — puts more emphasis on analytical thinking, for example, and less on mere reading comprehension.

A scoring change, too, made the test trickier. On the old test, a student’s scores in each subject were averaged into a single grade. A student weak in math could still pass the whole test if his or her scores in another subject, like reading or science, were exceptional.

Now students must pass every subject to succeed.

Egbejimba said the tougher new test adds to the burden her students feel as they come to see it as a ticket to a better life and strive to pass it.

The students, she said, come in fragile.

“They didn’t stick out high school for one reason or another,” she said. “And now, they face this big monster here.”

Credit for other learning

While Washington decided to keep the GED, the changes in the test sparked interest in exploring new ways for people to earn a high-school certificate.

One result is High School 21+, a new program that allows dropouts to earn high-school credit by demonstrating they have gained some of the skills they need through work experience. High School 21+ debuted in 12 of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges last year.

Adults in the program create a portfolio to prove they learned math, reading or other skills on the job or in other ways. An in-home child-care provider, for instance, might show how she kept a budget or tracked depreciation of materials for tax purposes.

The college determines whether her skills are high enough to meet high-school-level math requirements. Then she can take courses to fill out what’s still missing — at just $25 a quarter in tuition.

Tacoma Community College, which adopted High School 21+ last year, hoped to pilot the program with five to 10 students. But 50 students registered right away, and now more than 100 are enrolled.

Statewide, about 1,200 students are participating. Roughly half finished their diplomas within six months, said Lou Sager, Washington’s GED test administrator.

Those numbers, Sager said, will likely increase soon. Twice as many colleges will offer High School 21+ in the fall. One school — Clark College in Vancouver, Wash. — already has a waiting list of 600 for its program, which it plans to start as early as this summer.

The GED is unlikely to disappear entirely, Sager said. Some students will still want to take a test to quickly prove they’ve mastered high-school-level skills.

But for Sager, the more options the better for the nearly 600,000 adults in Washington who don’t have a high-school diploma.

“At least this way,” she said, “the student gets a choice.”