04/02/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

GED Overhaul Diminishing Hope

Earlier this year the American Council on Education and Pearson Education instituted a major overhaul of the General Educational Development tests, better known by their ubiquitous brand name, GED. They are now only offered on computers, the cost has tripled to almost $140, and any work done before January 1 toward achieving a GED has been invalidated. As the only high school diploma equivalency tests accepted by all 50 states, changes to GED has a huge impact on the millions of people who hope to earn credentials equivalent to a high school diploma. This is particularly onerous on the poor.

The purported goal of the changes is to increase the rigor of the tests and ensure people who have passed are ready for college or work. However, the impact I am seeing are limited possibilities, a less educated workforce, and a loss of hope.

In previous years, GED tests were administered with paper and pencils. The move to exclusively computerize them has resulted in significantly reduced access. In Camden, NJ, one of the poorest and most violent cities in the United States, there are zero computerized testing centers. Zero. That holds true for the rest of Camden County as well. According to the GED website, people need to travel to Philadelphia to take the tests.

The monetary hurdle is now huge. Besides having to travel significant distance and incur the cost of trains, tolls or parking, the fee to take the test has increased by nearly 300 percent. For the poorest among us the challenge to become employable is that much harder. How does one get the money to take the test needed to get a job to earn money?

On top of a lack geographic and monetary access, the overhaul has set back people who were making strides toward completing the GED. To earn the certification, one must pass five separate tests in science, mathematics, social studies, reading and writing. Those who spent the time and the money prior to this year to pass any less than all five exams have seen all their work disqualified, putting them at square one. The new policies grandfathered no one in, and therefore left everyone behind.

At Hopeworks 'N Camden, we are seeing the harsh realities of these corporate-driven changes first hand. We have traditionally depended on the GED to help youth in Camden get back on a track of lifelong learning. Without it, their opportunities or choices, including college and jobs, have been limited. In our city, only 53.4 percent of people graduate from high school according to the State of New Jersey Department of Education. The reality of the two public high schools is much worse; the dropout rate is actually close to 70 percent! Do the math. This appalling statistic means that over half of people here need access to high school equivalency tests if they are going to have prosperous futures.

Looking at this data, the big picture problem is that so many of our youth drop out of school, most of them in their freshman or sophomore years of high school. Yes, we should be trying to do everything we can to keep our young adults in school so they earn a diploma instead of a GED.

For more young people to be successful in school and earn diplomas, we need to begin asking, what is happening to our youth that over 50 percent of them choose to drop out of school? Why does leaving school make sense to them? We must start with realizing that students who are most at risk have likely experienced significant traumatic events in their lives caused by poverty and violence. Right now, educators focus on the symptom -- students "acting out" -- instead of the cause because there is no place for anything else in the school system. The symptoms are coping behaviors that our young have learned to manage a painful and ignore reality.

In the long-term, all our institutions must adopt an approach that pairs learning with healing in order to sustainably reduce the dropout rate. Teachers and administrators must receive training to help students recognize what has happened to them and create safety plans in order to break the toxic cycles of trauma.

In the short-term, though, there must be an accessible path for youth who have dropped out of school. That is not to say that it should be easy and the bar should be low. It certainly should not; our youth value things they earn. However, it must be accessible -- particularly to those people who have the most to gain from a new start. Otherwise we face a future full of people stuck in a present without many options.

Hopeworks' goal -- one we share with many other exemplary nonprofits across the country -- is to help young people in our poorest and most violent cities identify new possibilities. Right now, high school equivalency certification is one of our most critical tools for helping youth make meaningful changes in their lives, and we need to be able to offer it to them. Getting a job or a college degree is almost impossible without it. If GED has decided to put even more hurdles before the poor, we need new partners who will work with us to create a clear path to a better future.