2014 GED exam changes lead to major dip in Illinois test takers

Road to education success bulletin board
A poster board for educational success is displayed at the Association House in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. (Emily Hoerner/MEDILL)

By Emily Hoerner

Nearly 27,000 fewer Illinois residents tried for a GED certificate in 2014 than in 2013 after major changes to the high school equivalency exam, according to data by the Illinois Community College Board.

The new GED exam, introduced to test takers in January of 2014, is aligned with Illinois Common Core standards, said Jennifer Foster, the state GED administrator at the Illinois Community College Board. The new education requirements are more rigorous for participants, she said.

The exam was also moved to a computer-only format and now costs $120 to complete all four sections, $70 more than the cost of the test before the revamp.

The number of Illinois residents who attempted to get a GED certificate dropped dramatically after the new test was released in 2014. (Illinois Community College Board, Emily Hoerner/MEDILL)

“We’ve been hearing that it is difficult,” Foster said. “You’re looking at the higher order of things, the critical thinking skills.”

In addition to fewer people taking the exam, the pass rate for those completing the GED test is also lower among test takers in Illinois and Cook County. In 2013, 69.6 percent of Illinois test takers who completed the exam passed, while 2014 success rates were down to 53.2 percent. In Cook County, the percentage of attempts to pass the exam fell from 64.6 to 43.4 percent.

Passing rates for test takers in Cook County are down since the new exam was administered. (Illinois Community College Board, Emily Hoerner/MEDILL)

Jerald Digby, a 27-year-old Humboldt Park resident, hasn’t taken the new GED exam just yet, but said he has been preparing for the test for about a year. When the new exam aligned with Common Core standards was announced, he said he felt challenged. Although he feels confident in his math skills, the language arts section is daunting.

“It’s the reading, it’s the comprehension part,” Digby said. “I comprehend, but I think I overthink it.”

Digby isn’t alone. Alejandro Trejo, the adult education and volunteer coordinator at the Association House of Chicago, said getting students ready for the more difficult exam without new and expensive books has been tough. The updated curriculum has been even harder on the students attending GED preparation classes at the nonprofit organization. Trejo said many of his students start classes at 4th grade math and reading levels.

“Participants are quitting because it’s hard to pass the test, because they need a lot of time in order to be ready to take the test,” Trejo said, adding that students are dropping out of the Association House’s classes.

Before the 2014 change, Trejo said the average preparation time for a student was 18 months. Now, he is predicting that his students will need at least 26 months to prepare for the test.

Digby said he has been attending classes at the Association House for about three weeks but has been preparing much longer. After he was sentenced to spend a term at a juvenile correctional facility at 13 years old, he said he never returned to high school. During a recent three-year incarceration, Digby said he started studying for the test. His biggest insecurity, though, is the computerized nature of the exam.

“I don’t work with computers,” Digby said. “I’m an outside type of person, it’s all kind of new to me. I feel like a dinosaur or something when it comes to computers.”

Even in the tech savvy 21st century, the computerized nature of the new exam is a struggle for old and young people alike, according to Giovanni Sandino, the Math and Science instructor for GED classes at the Association House. Using a computer can intimidate some test takers.

“We still have some young people and maybe they don’t know how to type,” Sandino said. “They don’t have a computer at home.”

The move from paper tests in 2013 to computer exams last year required major changes at Illinois penitentiaries too. Tom Shaer, director of communications for the Illinois Correctional Facilities, said 25 state prisons purchased about 30 computers each to administer the new GED exam. Shaer said that although it’s early in the process of the new computerized programming, it hasn’t affected the inmate’s ability to prepare for the test.

“We definitely value education and keep pushing it, and the inmates seem as interested as always,” Shaer said.

The GED exam was also changed in 2002. Fewer people flocked to take the exam that year, similar to what happened in 2012 on a smaller scale. (Illinois Community College Board, Emily Hoerner/MEDILL)

Amid the low numbers of test takers in Illinois, Foster said the Community College Board is hopeful that test numbers will bounce back as they did when the exam was adjusted in 2002. She said they are also reviewing other options, like the slightly cheaper Test Assessing Secondary Completion that is offered in a computer and paper format. Regardless of which test is used, Foster said the more rigorous standards are here to stay.

“As with any K-12 program, you want to make sure you have the standards in place to help individuals move into post-secondary education and employment,” Foster said.

Digby said he has his eyes set on college once he passes the GED, with plans to study Sociology and Psychology.

“A lot of people I know got a lot of issues that I can’t articulate,” Digby said. “I want to try and to help them the best I can.”

Photo at top: A poster board for educational success is displayed at the Association House in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. (Emily Hoerner/MEDILL)