Wauneta Vasco, 77, is pursuing her longtime goal of getting her high school diploma. (Charla Bear/KQED)
Wauneta Vasco, 77, is pursuing her longtime goal of getting a high school diploma. (Charla Bear/KQED)

Thousands of adults in California and across the nation are racing to get their GEDs before the high school equivalency exam goes through a major transformation. Next Jan. 1, the multipart test will get more rigorous in an effort to better prepare adults for college and careers.

According to the GED Testing Service, the new exam is so different that anyone who hasn’t passed the current version by the end of the year will have to start all over.

Felipe Maya, 31, and his brother, Jesus, 28, started taking GED classes for one simple reason—to get more out of life than working all the time. They say they’re stuck stringing together low-wage jobs at a grocery store and a restaurant because, like nearly one in five adults in California, they don’t have diplomas or an equivalent.

Last year, the Maya brothers decided to change that. Every week, they’ve made a one-hour round-trip trek from their home in Half Moon Bay to the San Mateo Adult School. They’ve done prep classes and taken the test in phases, passing three parts so far.

Now, the pressure is on. If they don’t pass the last two sections before the end of the year, everything they have completed will be invalid.

“I feel really stressed sometimes,” Felipe Maya says. “Because if I don’t pass those tests, the idea of taking all those tests again, it terrifies me.” A More Challenging Test

It’s not just starting over that scares Maya. He knows the new test is supposed to be even harder. After looking at the sample questions online, one in particular really stumped him:

The question shows the general chemical equation for cellular respiration: C6H12O6 + 6O2 —> 6H2O + 6CO2 + energy

Then it asks which statement describes the process in the equation:

  • a. Glucose and oxygen combine to produce energy.
  • b. Glucose and oxygen combine to produce water and carbon dioxide.
  • c. Glucose is broken down in the presence of oxygen to release energy.
  • d. Glucose is broken down into water and carbon dioxide to store energy.
  • (The correct answer? See the end of this post.)

The questions are more challenging because the test is aligned to the Common Core Standards. They require students to show how they got an answer, not just find the correct one. So instead of multiple-choice bubbles in a paper booklet, the new test is on computer. It has blank spaces to type in, essay passages to drag and drop, and graphs to click on. Maya says all those options mean each question takes more time to figure out.

“With those kinds of questions, I feel really pressured now,” he says. “I feel like I have to do it. I have to do it on paper. It’s now or never.”

Improvements for Test-Takers

Ellen Haworth, who teaches the GED prep classes the Mayas attend, says she was stressed out, too, when she first heard about the change last year (the GED Testing Service announced the revisions in 2011). Now, she thinks it could really benefit her students.

“If everybody’s standards go up, the GED should too,” Haworth says. “I don’t think it’s fair to say you’re equivalent to the typical high school diploma if we’re left behind. Making them better prepared out there in the workforce is better for everybody. Step it up. Let’s go.”

The new test has other benefits. Scores will be available the same day instead of waiting up to a week and a half for manual grading.

Susan Williams, who oversees the GED program at the San Mateo Adult School, says she agrees the new tests will ultimately be a good thing. She just thinks it’ll be a difficult transition.

“If you look at a student who comes to GED instruction, they’re coming in at grade eight readability,” she says. “They need to be closer to 10th to 11th grade readability.”

About 56,000 adults take the GED every year, according to Diane Hernandez, the state’s GED administrator.

Some have complained that it’s not fair that they’ll lose any parts of the test they’ve completed if they don’t pass every section by the end of the year.

Randy Trask, president of the GED Testing Service, says that’s why the company has been working with testing centers to get the word out, especially to those who’ve completed four out of the five sections.

“The reality is when we’re running a national testing program, we have to ensure fairness to all testers,” Trask says. “It would be unfair for people starting in 2014 to be competing for the credential with people that didn’t have to meet the same requirements. Each time we’ve gone to a major revision of our test, we’ve had a policy of essentially a hard cut-over to the new test.”

Race to the Finish

Testing centers across the state are filling up. Williams says the San Mateo Adult School anticipates a 25 percent increase in enrollment because of the testing change.

She says it’s great to reach more people, except many of them don’t realize how far behind they are and she has to break it to them that they’ll have to take the harder test.

“I do have extra Kleenex in my office just to plan for, because we know it’s emotional,” she says. “We know that the hopes and the dreams and the aspirations are tied to passing this high-stakes exam for them.”

The GED might not be referred to often as high stakes, but Williams says it involves a lot more than landing a better job or getting into college. For those attempting the test, it can also be about proving something to themselves, getting a second chance, or completing a long-overdue goal.

At 77 years old, Wauneta Vasco says she has trouble recalling most things, but she never forgets that she’s not a graduate.

“I always wanted a diploma,” says Vasco. “All my grandkids, my daughters, everybody in my family graduated. I haven’t. I’ll never get the diploma, but a GED is just as good. So, I’m going to do this. Or, I’m going to really try.”

Regardless of why test takers are rushing in before the December deadline, or how many of them pass this GED, the whole process is shedding light on some of the challenges facing California’s 5 million adults without a high school credential.

Correct answer to test question, according to the GED Testing Service: “Option C is correct. This option correctly describes the process occurring in the equation. Though it does not specifically identify the products of the reaction (CO2 and H2O), it does describe the chemical reaction correctly by stating that energy is released as glucose is ‘broken down’ in the presence of oxygen.”

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