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Changing GED Adds New Problems To An Old Test

John O'Connor
StateImpact Florida

Uzelea Evans has had a tough run recently.

Her unemployment payments have been hung up for six weeks because of the state’s new online system.

And the mother of five lost her Tampa apartment and has to move out next month.

But she’s working hard toward some good news in a classroom at Metropolitan Ministries – passing the GED exam.

“My life has been a struggle ever since my mom died," Evans said. "But I’m just trying to stay focused and keep going. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve got a lot on my plate but I’ve got to keep going. I’ve just got to keep going – that’s why I need this so bad. So I got to get this.”

Evans works as a cook. Dropping out of high school has hindered her in finding a higher-paying job.

She’s one of about 40 people taking GED classes at Metropolitan Ministries.

Like Evans, all of them have to answer a question before even stepping into the exam room: do I try to take the old GED before the end of the month, or wait for the new GED in January?

More than 80 million people have earned the equivalent of a high school diploma by passing the GED exam.

But the test is making big changes starting in January.

Students won’t be able to take a pencil and paper version of the test – now it’s all online.

The test will get tougher, with more focus on problem solving.

Teacher Travis McGinnis says he started telling students in September that a new exam was coming.

“There are quite a few changes,"McGinnis said. "The cost. How you take it; it’s going to be on a computer only now. So we have to make sure that everybody has basic computer skills. As far as the material is concerned, the base of it really is not changing.”

But McGinnis said rumors about the new test are scaring away students.

“There’s no trig, there’s no calculus," he said. "‘I heard there’s trig! I heard!’ No, there’s not. It’s not on this test. You know, that’s what they hear. So it’s just trying to work through all of these misconceptions. That’s why the class has thinned out somewhat.“

Advanced math may not be on the exam. But GED Testing Services believes the exam will be tougher.

The GED was created in 1942, when a high school education was fine for industrial jobs. The test has been updated several times as the job market has changed.

GED Testing Services vice president Nicole Chestang said the 2014 changes will measure talents colleges and employers want.

“And that is: increased critical thinking and problem-solving skills," Chestang said. "Unlike the current test, which focuses much more in measuring what you know, the new test will be focused more on how you can apply what you know in real world problem-solving context.

Not only is the test more difficult -- it's also more expensive.

The old test is $70. The new test is $130.

Many of McGinnis’ students are homeless or unemployed, so cost is a big deal.

Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida
StateImpact Florida
Jermaine Watkins is studying for his GED at Metropolitan Ministries.

Are students rushing through their studies just to beat the deadline?

McGinnis said he’s advising students about when they should attempt the exam.

"I hate to see somebody waste their money on this test," he said, "so I try not to send anybody out that I feel does not have a great shot to pass the test."

Uzelea Evans isn't waiting. She's ready to tackle the old GED test this week.

“I’ve been doing all advanced work and didn’t even know it because my teacher tricked me," she said. "But he knew a little bit more than what I knew of myself. I haven’t been in a class in 30-some years so I’m nervous about that, but all of my work has been advanced work and I’ve been acing it.

McGinnis said about half of his students are taking the test now while the other half are waiting.

A half-dozen students who have take the exam this month have passed while more are waiting on their results.

John O’Connor is a reporter for StateImpact Florida, a project of WUSF, WLRN and NPR covering education. John writes for the StateImpact Florida blog and produces stories for air on Florida public radio stations.