GED Changes Mean New Challenges for DREAMers

PHOTO: Student Demarcus Miller listens to a teacher from behind a computer terminal in a GED preparation class in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013.David Duprey/AP Photo
Student Demarcus Miller listens to a teacher from behind a computer terminal in a GED preparation class in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013. Adults who've begun working toward their GED are being urged to finish up this year, before the test for a high school equivalency diploma changes and they have to start all over.

New changes to the GED test mean adults currently working toward earning the certification need to finish this year or start over, and the changes could impact young undocumented immigrants who hope to apply for deportation relief through deferred action.

The high-school-equivalency test, which is recognized by every state in the nation, will change at the beginning of 2014 to align with the Common Core curricula most states have adopted. Those standards emphasize writing and content analysis. Students will also take the test via computer instead of on paper.

If people who have only passed portions of the test don't complete it by next January, their scores will expire and they will have to start again.

The stakes are especially high for DREAMers. One of the many requirements for deferred action is a GED or high-school diploma, so the certificate means not only wider opportunities, but the chance to apply to stay in the country without fear of deportation.

Dr. David Koelsch, a University of Detroit Mercy associate law professor and director of the Immigration Law Clinic there, has helped about 375 young people apply for deferred action. He says the new test worries some DREAMers.

"They're freaked out," he said.

Koelsch's organization received a grant from the Ford Foundation in October to do deferred-action outreach at Southwest Solutions Learning Lab, an organization in Detroit that offers GED and English-language classes. Nearly all of the people he's helped since then have gone back to school for a chance at deportation relief.

Part of what makes the students nervous, Koelsch said, is that they had carefully planned out their path to a GED and now those timelines have been thwarted. Most don't have the flexibility of traditional students; they have families and jobs, and many can only devote a few hours a week to the necessary classes. Those who had planned to finish in two years are now trying to figure out how to cram in all of their studies by December.

Koelsch said the emphasis on writing and analysis may be difficult for those who didn't grow up writing and thinking in English, but added that the computer format may be better "than having to write out a sentence."

The test is available in Spanish, and a Spanish-language version of the new test will be available several months after the new English version comes out in January. But many people try to take the test in English because it opens up wider opportunities.

The new test was announced last fall but gained little attention at the time. A series of recent releases from GED Testing Service has put it back in the spotlight, however, and some students who didn't hear about the changes initially are just now becoming aware of them.

The new computerized test will have four sections – literacy, mathematical reasoning, science and social studies – instead of five. What used to be a stand-alone essay section will be incorporated into the literacy and social studies sections.

The new test may also cost marginally more than the old version.

About 700,000 people take the test each year, Armando Diaz, a spokesman for GED Testing Service said, with the average test taker being 26-years-old. Just shy of two-thirds pass the test itself, but some states have additional requirements and only about 400,000 make it all the way through the process. More than 1 million are expected to take it this year ahead of the changes, Diaz said, which could strain test-prep programs and testing sites.

Thirty eight states currently offer a computerized test, and according to Diaz, the pass rate is higher for the computerized version than for the paper version.

Next year, all states must offer a computerized version because the paper version will no longer be available. According to Diaz, it is designed to test digital literacy, including typing and basic skills such as dragging and dropping icons. Some aspects of the test have become dated, and others, such as tech skills, have been added to reflect the fact that graduating high school seniors need some degree of familiarity with a computer, Diaz said.

"It's not going to be harder. We're just going to be measuring different skills," Diaz said. "We have to make sure the GED is on par with the regular high-school curriculum."

Taking the test on a computer offers some definite advantages, Diaz noted. People will know their scores instantly instead of waiting what can sometimes be several months for a score report. It could also help to alleviate the burden on test centers that are already overbooked and stretching their resources.

Koelsch said despite the additional roadblock to DREAMers, possible deportation relief is a big motivator and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

"They're a little ticked off," he said, "but they say, 'Yeah, it's one more thing, but we have a way to get status now, and we're going to do it.'"