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Civil Rights Coalition Presses Questions About GED Redesign

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is scheduled to meet with a top official in the GED Testing Service to discuss its concerns that a major redesign of the exam could raise its cost and make it unaffordable for the people most in need of taking it.

In an April 13 letter to Nicole M. Chestang, the executive director of the GED Testing Service, the two highest officials of the civil-rights coalition, President Wade Henderson and Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president for policy, expressed their concerns about cost and affordability and requested a meeting to discuss the issue. That meeting is set for May 11.

As we reported to you last fall, the GED is undergoing its biggest overhaul in seven decades. There will be two performance levels on the new one: one connoting high school equivalency and another connoting college and career readiness.

There is plenty of debate, as my story reports, about the value of the current GED. But the fact is that millions still use it as a pathway to jobs and college. So the LCCR is concerned that the ambitious redesign will inevitably raise the cost of the exam and make it impossible for states to offer it as widely as they have in the past.

In an interview, Zirkin said she doesn't have confirmation that the test will be more expensive or less accessible. But the expense of the project, combined with the fact that it's being undertaken by a for-profit entity—a joint venture of the American Council on Education, which created the GED, and educational publisher Pearson—prompted concerns at the LCCR, she said. (We have heard concerns about this business arrangement, as well.)

"We don't have hard evidence that it's going to cost more," Zirkin told me. "That's what we want to talk to them about. If we find that they are going to do things that will ensure that it's available to everyone, as was the case before, then that's fine."

The redesign itself is something that LCCR "applauds," Zirkin said, because it will drive higher levels of preparedness for jobs and college. But at the same time, the group is concerned about the possibility that a tougher test will demand more preparation. If that preparation costs more than prep has in the past, low-income and low-skilled people could find themselves at a disadvantage, she said.

The concern about price doesn't come out of nowhere. Tight fiscal times have prompted some states to cut back on how much of the cost they can subsidize. Additionally, the GED did change its pricing structure, even before it announced the revamp of the test. See my blog post from last May about both of these things. This piece from Tennessee, and this one from Minnesota, quote education officials saying the price of the GED was going to rise dramatically in 2014.

I rang up Nicole Chestang to run these price and accessibility concerns by her. She said she looks forward to the May 11 meeting so she can reassure the LCCR that the GED Testing Service is "committed to keeping cost as lean as possible."

The GED has revised its initial projected cost to states for the computer-based version of the test, which is rolling out now. The price will be $24 for each section of the test, or $120 total, regardless of whether test-takers sit for all five sections at once or take them on different days, she said.

The original projected price to states, as we reported, was estimated at $140 to take all five sections at once, and $200 to take them in stages. The price states will pay for computer-based testing includes some costs that states currently shoulder themselves, Chestang said, such as scheduling and scoring tests.

Quick refresher: The way the GED works is that states pay to lease the test battery, and then set their own prices for test-takers. Some states subsidize more of the cost than others. Test-takers pay zero in states such as New York and West Virginia, but typically states charge in the $80 to $150 range, Chestang said.

When the GED announced the initial projected $140/$200 price structure for computer-based tests, states weren't happy. So GED went back to the drawing board and reworked things to offer the across-the-board price of $120, Chestang said.

There are no plans to change the price of the paper-and-pencil version of the test, which will be available until the end of 2013, Chestang said.

As for the price of the computer version, "We are doing everything we can to keep it at similar levels in 2014." The GED Testing Service is working on a plan to keep costs down, and anticipates an announcement later this month about the steps it will take to do that, she said.


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