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Critics say easier passing score isn't enough of a change

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO  - GED student Marquez Goldsby works in the lobby of Londer Learning Center last April. Masked in Oregon’s recent celebration of higher graduation rates was the fact that 26 percent of the state’s students did not graduate high school in the regular way last year. That means they will probably have to make up for it later in life.

In the Portland area, there are several programs to retain failing high schoolers or encourage them to come back after dropping out. But after they have left the K-12 system for good, the General Educational Development or GED test is the only one available to give Oregonians a high school degree equivalent.

Recent changes to the GED have made it easier to pass, but some critics say the Common Core-based and now-computerized test is still more difficult than it needs to be.

The GED is required for higher education pathways to well-paying jobs, of course, but these days it often is a requirement of entry-level jobs as well.

“The students that I work with, for the most part, want to get a job at Home Depot and Walmart,” says Portland Community College volunteer tutor John Grosvenor. He says a GED opens other doors to more education and higher aspirations. “Hopefully they will (achieve higher aspirations) when they get their lives back on track,” he says, “but right now, most of them are just saying they want a job.”

Grosvenor is an outspoken critic of the change in the GED after Pearson VUE won the contract to write a new test, rolled out Jan. 1, 2014. Ever since then, graduation rates have been a small fraction of historical levels. The first year of the new test graduated just 1,770 people. In 2015, the state graduated fewer than 3,000 students.

TRIBUNE GRAPHIC: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE  - This chart shows the number of Oregon GED earners over the past seven years. In 2013 there was a large spike as people wanted to earn their GED before the more rigorous 2014 test rolled out. The number of graduates recovered a bit in 2015, but are still nowhere near historic levels.

Passing score lowered

But a new change will boost those numbers, with 571 Oregonians retroactively earning their GEDs. The GED Testing Service’s Jan. 26 announcement that it will lower the passing score by 5 points, to 145, seems to validate what critics like Grosvenor have been saying: The bar was set too high.

But Grosvenor argues that even at 145, the bar is still too high.

“There needs to be a fairness where we don’t expect so much more of a GED student,” he says. “The vast majority of high school graduates would never, ever come close to passing the GED test. Never. Couldn’t come close.”

Teresa Alonso Leon, who heads Oregon’s GED testing program at the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, says she finds the latest graduation numbers encouraging. About 70 percent more people are passing the test this year than last year. Looking at those who attempt the GED, Oregon has one of the highest graduation rates in the country.

“I think our numbers are gradually growing,” Alonso Leon says, adding that the new passing score should also increase the number of graduates. “It’s a great thing. We’ve improved from 2014 to 2015, and these additional students will obviously add to our growing numbers.”

Alternatives to GED

Currently, 24 states are offering alternatives to the GED. These alternatives include the HiSET test by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service and the Test Assessing Secondary Completion by the for-profit Data Recognition Corp.

“I don’t think it’s realistic for us to try to kick GED testing out on the street, but our students aren’t well-served when there’s this monopoly,” Grosvenor says. “I think they need to be able to choose.”

Alonso Leon says offering an alternative to the GED would be up to the Oregon Legislature, as the law specifies GED testing. She declined to take a position on whether or not she would support a GED alternative, saying that she was only speaking as an employee of the state. But Alonso Leon also is running as a representative in House District 22, centered in Woodburn.

“They might consider it in the future,” Alonso Leon says of the Legislature.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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