Jan. 1, 2014 marked an extremely difficult day for the 1.3 million people who lost their unemployment benefits, but this wasn’t the only new legislation targeted toward those living in poverty. In North Carolina, the GED test, which was formerly administered by the nonprofit American Council on Education is now under the control of a public-private partnership with Pearson VUE, the largest for profit testing agency in the United States. The changes in administration will prove to present many difficult obstacles for North Carolinians trying to take the GED test—most of these low-income, minority citizens. Access to postsecondary education is commonly recognized as the most viable way to establish middle class earnings. A GED diploma is an important tool for advancing education and technical skills, leading people to better opportunities.
Here is what taking the GED test looked like before the legislative changes: The former cost was $35 total for a series of five tests taken with pencil and paper at 72 locations throughout the state. Later in 2013, people had the option of taking a computerized version of the test at the cost of $24 per test. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was reasonable, especially considering the rate of North Carolinians without a high school diploma. There are currently 800,000 working-age adults in North Carolina without a high school credential, which is the 13th-highest percentage in the nation. Hispanics account for 44.8 percent of this population. These are the facts behind some of the challenges our state is facing, and rather than incentivizing people to take the GED test, the General Assembly has chosen to make it more difficult for people of color and low-income citizens.
Rather than $35 for a series of five tests, the price tag is now $120 for only four tests, which equates to $30 per test. The North Carolina Justice Center asserts “there are concerns about the higher cost of computer-based assessment and future increases due to the for-proﬁt nature of the new GED testing service.” We cannot underestimate the potential harm of the $85 cost increase, considering many adults without a high school diploma are low-wage earners. I am skeptical of why the legislature is prioritizing the profit of a private corporation rather than the betterment of its residents. Perhaps the state is receiving some financial benefit from this process, but I don’t understand why this would be the method of choice for padding the state’s budget. The state should be encouraging people to acquire more education, rather than creating expensive obstacles.
Under this new system, any tests taken within the five-test series without completing the entire series in order to obtain a GED diploma prior to Dec. 31, 2013 will be completely void. For example, if I had taken three of the required tests prior to the start of this year, but did not finish my last two exams, I would have to start over completely with the new system. During the 2012-13 ﬁscal year, 25,971 North Carolinians took at least one of the ﬁve tests within the current GED series. Of these students, 15,717 have attained a GED diploma. As of Sept. 1, 2013, 10,254 of the nearly 26,000 students had not yet passed all tests necessary to attain a GED diploma. For many test takers, not only will this be mentally discouraging, but it will be expensive and require a large amount of time.
The cost and structure aren’t the only changes under the new system. In the past, computer tests were offered to test-takers with disabilities who could not complete the pencil and paper version. From now on, all GED tests will be computerized. This may seem like a step in the right direction for those of us with adequate computer literacy, but many without a high school diploma don’t have the luxury of a technological skill set. There are many disparities between demographic groups and technology competency. National data show that adults living in households earning less than $30,000 per year are by far the least likely income group to have access to desktops or laptops. Not only might this discourage people without adequate computer skills from taking the test, the state may also see significant challenges in ensuring all test-takers have the computer proficiency necessary to complete the electronic test.
Additionally, now that all tests are electronic, the GED tests will only be offered at locations approved by Pearson VUE. All existing testing centers must now have the sufficient capacity and equipment in order to offer the computerized test. Currently, the test will only be offered at community colleges. This limits accessibility for test takers who may not have sufficient transportation methods.
Beyond administration, the actual content of the test is changing as well. The test will now rank results on a two-tier system, one level being “high school equivalency and college readiness,” the other result being just simply “high school equivalency.” It is unclear how employers will gauge this different set of results and whether or not they will preference candidates who also achieved “college readiness.” It is also not clear whether those who were simply awarded “high school equivalency” will be discouraged from applying to postsecondary education programs.
The profitization and privatization of GED test taking is just another attack on the poor coming from the General Assembly. If our legislators want students entering STEM fields, and if they want to increase the amount of research and technology jobs in this state, they should be prepared to provide better access to education for all residents, rather than prioritizing private, for profit machines.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. Her column normally runs every other Monday. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.