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Molly Corbett Broad Headshot

It's Not Your Father's GED Anymore -- and That's a Good Thing

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You may have heard a lot about the new GED test. In fact, the new GED program unveiled this month will play a significant role in the national drive to increase the number of Americans with a college degree.

If that seems like a bold statement, consider some startling numbers:

  • By 2018, some two-thirds of all jobs will require some college education or better, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
  • Only 42 percent of the U.S. population between 25 and 64 years of age hold an associate degree or higher.
  • About 39 million Americans lack a high school diploma, including 15 million between ages 18-44.
  • All this illustrates the importance of the 2014 GED program developed by the GED Testing Service, and how the new GED test figures into the national education attainment puzzle.

Helping more Americans gain access to and graduate from college is embedded in the very DNA of my organization, the American Council on Education (ACE). We were formed in 1918 to aid soldiers who would return from World War I to a tough economy. We were then called the Emergency Council on Education because raising the education attainment of those veterans was an economic imperative.

In 1942, ACE was called upon to create the alternative high school credential, and developed the GED test to raise education attainment opportunities for soldiers who would return from World War II after dropping out of high school to join the military. Passing the GED test made those veterans eligible for the 1944 GI Bill's higher education benefits. They were able to go on to college and became what we refer to as the "Greatest Generation."

But while some changes have been made to the GED test over the past 70 years, it became clear that the GED program had not moved nearly far enough to meet the demands of our 21st Century global economy. There were few mechanisms in place to help those who failed the GED test to keep trying, and passing the old GED test didn't ensure students would possess the knowledge and skills needed to do well in college, in any event.

Indeed, just 12 percent of those who passed the old GED test actually went on to gain postsecondary degrees or credentials.

All this provided the impetus for constructing an entirely new GED program, one focused on aiding the test-taker in innovative and effective ways.

The ambitious objectives and the sheer magnitude of the undertaking provided the spark for ACE to form our joint venture with Pearson in 2011 to create the new GED Testing Service. Our goal was nothing less than recapturing the incredible waste of human talent represented by the millions of Americans who lack a high school diploma, and are unprepared for the college and career programs required for most of today's jobs.

As I noted, the new GED test is just one component in ACE's work to raise attainment levels. For instance, ACE has since 1945 evaluated military training and experiences to determine their eligibility for college credit recommendations. Later, ACE's credit recommendation programs were extended to the workplace and to major departments of government. Helping adult learners gain college credit for prior learning experiences is also vital to easing the path toward a postsecondary degree or credential.

But we cannot afford to leave behind those who never graduated from high school. The new GED program is designed to make the path not just to a high school diploma but on to college a reality for millions of people.

The 2014 GED program will better support adult learners, provide them with the tools they need to perform well on the test, and bridge the gap from high school dropout to middle-skill job-holder.

Key to the program is a new test, aligned with state and national college and career readiness standards. The new GED program also includes a more flexible, test-taker-friendly computer-based system and same-day score results. It will transition the GED test from just a high school equivalency assessment to a comprehensive start-to-finish program.

Under the old program, it was difficult for a person who failed one or more parts of the test to determine where he or she went wrong and how to gain the knowledge needed to succeed. The new GED program provides all that information, down to the page where a student can study the specific material needed to improve his or her test scores.

Is the new GED test more difficult? Yes, because high school graduation standards are becoming more challenging and, despite that, the gap between being able to do high school level work and being prepared for college level work continues to grow. That is one reason why the test has two performance levels: one at the high school equivalency level, tied to the performance of today's high school graduates; and the other called GED with Honors, reflecting skills associated with success in college and careers.

GED Testing Service also allows those who don't pass the test initially to retake it at a minimal cost, and has mechanisms in place to encourage test takers to keep trying. Over the past two years, more than 500,000 GED tests have been taken on computer in preparation for the Jan. 2 rollout of the new test. The pass rate has been nearly 15 percent higher than for those taking the paper test, with those who fail the test on the computer nearly 60 percent more likely to re-take the test than those who take it on paper.

Leaving a GED test in place that didn't require 21st Century knowledge wouldn't be fair to the millions of Americans who want to gain not just a high school diploma, but the ability to succeed at the postsecondary level.

This new, comprehensive GED program is a critical step forward in ACE's efforts to expand the pipeline of learners who are prepared for college-level work. It will better support and equip adult learners to compete in today's economy and be qualified for good jobs that pay a living wage.