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States Explore New Routes to High School Completion Without Equivalency Exams

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Students who have been unable to earn their high school diplomas have long used an alternative track to finish high school: the equivalency test. Now a few states are opening additional channels to let older students complete high school.

Illinois is the latest example. Concerned that equivalency exams can hamper some young adults' entry into the workforce, Illinois is developing a plan that would let them finish high school in other ways, such as passing community college courses or completing a credit-recovery program.

The state's community college board is working on those plans, and hopes to offer alternatives to equivalency tests this fall, according to the State Journal-Register.

Currently, Illinois adults who haven't earned their diplomas can complete high school by taking one of three equivalency exams: The still-dominant GED, or two newer equivalency exams, HiSET or TASC. They also must pass a test on the Illinois and U.S. constitutions.

Matt Berry, a spokesman for the community college board, said that the new policy could help reduce barriers for people who didn't earn diplomas but want to enter the workforce. There are 1.2 million adults in Illinois who lack high school diplomas, he said. More than 14,000 people take equivalency tests each year.

"There's a significant need for additional options in our state," Berry said. "We need to look at how can we best serve this large population of adults. To fill the jobs that are out there, we're going to need adults to enter our workforce." 

Current discussions at the community college board focus on four new routes to high school equivalency, Berry said. In addition to completing credit recovery programs or college courses, students could opt for a competency-based approach. That method would allow students taking adult-education courses to demonstrate their skills as part of that coursework, he said. Another route would allow diplomas earned in other countries to be recognized as equivalent to an Illinois diploma, he said.

The process of creating new equivalency pathways began in 2014, after Illinois officials noted a significant decline in the participation and passing rates on the GED, Berry said.

That trend played out nationally, too: pass rates and participation declined after the GED debuted a more rigorous (and more expensive) test aligned to the common-core standards in 2014. It was so rigorous, in fact, that the GED lowered the passing score in 2016.

The first phase of the conversation in Illinois focused on exploring alternatives to the GED, and led to the state adopting two newer equivalency exams as additional options for students: the HiSET and the TASC

Directed by a state senate resolution, community college board officials assembled a task force last year to explore non-testing options for high school equivalency, Berry said. That group examined practices in other states, and led to recommendations that are now shaping discussions for an Illinois plan.

One of the states the task force studied is Wisconsin, which offers various routes for students who are 18 1/2 or older to earn high school equivalency. They may pass the GED and a civics test, or pass an expanded version of the test that also includes health, civic literacy, employability skills, and career awareness. Students taking one of those tests must also demonstrate that they've completed sufficient credits, but those can be high school or college credits.

Illinois is one of only a few states that have begun to explore high school equivalency options beyond the GED, HiSET and TASC exams. Some states have also added new options for regular diplomas for adults.

Wisconsin allows students to earn regular diplomas through demonstrations of competency. Iowa passed a law last year that lets adults earn equivalency by bundling high school and college credits together, according to the National Skills Coalition

Minnesota created a program in 2014 that allows adults to earn regular diplomas through competency-based adult-education programs.

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