GED numbers plummet after switch to computers, cost increase

NM GED Testing

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It’s been a long road, and Timo Marquez is almost there. A decade ago, Marquez created for himself a host of “attendance and disciplinary issues” at Los Lunas High School. He was asked to leave. The charter school he subsequently landed in didn’t work out either. Marquez was headed in the wrong direction.

“I would consider myself a troubled teen back in my high school days for sure,” he said. “Recently, I’ve made the change in getting my life together and pursuing my education.”

Now, the 25-year-old father of two has passed three-fourths of the GED exam. That means he can see the possibilities ahead of him clearly: maybe a spot in the Albuquerque Fire Department Academy, where he would follow in the footsteps of several family members; perhaps a few business classes that would open doors beyond his current job as a tile setter.

“It’s exciting, and I’m definitely waiting for the moment when I can consider myself a member of CNM and part of their college courses,” Marquez told KRQE News 13 in an interview this week. “It’s been a huge process, and I’m trying to take it one step at a time.”

“It’s definitely a more difficult test than it was four years ago.”— Timo Marquez

There’s one more step: math.

Marquez has failed the math portion of the GED test twice this year. He chalked it up to two reasons: high scores on practice tests that made him ineligible for preparatory classes in math — and computers.

“I never made it this far before, but I first tried taking the GED about four years ago,” Marquez said. “It was more simplified and easier to take then, with the paper and pencil. I think the computer definitely plays a role. I kind of know the basics, but I’m not computer savvy. So, it’s a little daunting, and I would prefer the paper and pencil for sure.”

But in New Mexico, Marquez doesn’t have that option anymore.

That’s because Pearson, the well-known textbook company, purchased the GED a few years ago and, starting in 2014, began offering the test only on computers. The New Mexico Public Education Department has a contract with Pearson, that makes the company the state’s only provider of high school equivalency exams.

Computers weren’t the only change this year.

The cost of taking the GED in New Mexico more than doubled: from about $50 to $120.

With pretests and the test itself – including the two failed attempts on the math section – Marquez has spent $174 on the GED since May.

“It’s not an impossible task, but I could definitely be spending the money on other things,” he said. “Of course, my children come first.”

With the change this year, the test also has been made more difficult to align it more closely with Common Core standards being rolled out in schools nationwide.

Marquez’s experience is both unique and common, according to adult education advocates who spoke with News 13.

The fact that he’s committed to taking the test despite the computer- and cost-based obstacles places him in the unique category. The fact that he’s facing the obstacles is common.

“A lot of the older students and rural students just don’t have access to computers,” said Teri Wimborne with the United Way’s Mission Graduate program. “You don’t just need passing computer skills. You need to know how to use a computer and be comfortable on a computer.”

Advocates have been sounding the alarm for more than a year that the change to computer-only testing and the increase in cost would lead to decreases in the number of people taking and passing the GED.

“It could be brought into the definition of institutional racism.”— Teresa Guevara

They were right.

Since 2011, an average of about 9,000 people have taken the test in New Mexico, according to statistics provided by the PED. The number jumped over 10,000 last year as folks scrambled to finish the test before the changes kicked in.

Through October of this year, just 2,404 people have taken at least a portion of the GED exam. Estimates show the drop from 2013 to 2014 will be around 75 percent by year’s end.

PED officials have said they expected numbers to dip, as they did when the test changed in 2002.

That year, however, saw a decrease in test takers of only about 28 percent.

There’s been another decrease this year: the average age of test-takers. It has dipped from 26 to 21.

At a recent meeting of one of the Unidos Project for Latino Student Success’ working groups, the frustration was apparent among many adult education advocates. The group’s consensus was that figuring out why the numbers have fallen so dramatically is as easy to figure out as filling in a bubble on a testing sheet.

“One (reason) is they are not familiar with the technology,” said Teresa Brito-Asenap of the Unidos Project. “The other is because of finances.”

People in some of New Mexico’s poorer and more rural areas don’t have access to computers. As a result, many of those people aren’t familiar with the technology used for taking the GED exam now.

Moreover, the cost has proven somewhat prohibitive, advocates said.

“It could be brought into the definition of institutional racism,” said Teresa Guevara, of Encuentro, an adult education advocacy center. “It is a way of marginalizing, further marginalizing a segment of the population.”

Wimborne, Guevara, Brito-Asenap and other advocates said they have implored the PED to provide – or at least consider – alternative tests that would cost less and allow people to use paper and pencil.

“We’ve been asking PED to please look at the other two tests,” Wimborne said, referring to two recently-developed alternative tests that have been adopted in other states, cost less and are offered via paper and pencil. And recently they did send out a request for bid.

“They’re thinking about looking at the other two tests, but they appear to be in no hurry. We think our students deserve options. When it comes to high school equivalency, they should be able to take the test on content and not have to worry about cost… Not have to worry about the computer.”

News 13 took the advocates’ concerns to Leighann Lenti, director of policy for the PED.

“In this first year, any time you move to a new assessment there’s going to be some growing pains.” — PED Director of Policy Leighann Lenti

Through a spokesman, Lenti refused to comment on Guevara’s claims of institutional racism. But Lenti sat down for an interview and addressed many of the advocates’ other concerns.

She confirmed that PED has issued a request for applications (RFA) and that Pearson and two other companies have submitted applications.

News 13 asked why it has taken PED more than a year to look at alternatives.

“We had an agreement (with Pearson) in place previously that extended through the end of last calendar year,” Lenti said. “At that time we hadn’t been able to go through the RFA process. The RFA process is not a quick process, it takes a while to develop out the scope to make sure we are really clearly articulating what we’re looking for.”

PED hopes to have the course forward for high school equivalency charted by the end of this year, she said. That could mean still only offering the GED test through Pearson – on computers only – switching to a paper-and-pencil test through one of the other companies or a combination of both.

“We’ve said all along, we’re open to one provider, two providers, as long as they meet the criteria,” Lenti said.

She said PED is seeking private funds to help students pay for the more-expensive GED.

Asked to explain the dramatic decrease in the number of test-takers and test-passers this year, Lenti acknowledged the advocates’ concerns about the cost increase and the switch to computers.

“In this first year, any time you move to a new assessment there’s going to be some growing pains,” she said. “We’ve definitely heard some concerns regarding the transition for the GED moving to the computer.”

PED has long maintained that, in today’s world, basic computer skills are necessary for job seekers.

Several times during the interview, Lenti returned to the same explanation for the projected 75 percent decrease in the number of people taking the GED this year.

She pointed out that five of the state’s 34 testing centers opened late this year. Four others still haven’t opened.

“When there are centers that for a full five months of the calendar year weren’t offering the GED, that’s going to have an impact on the number of students that can even access the test,” Lenti said.

While it sounds like a sizable chunk of New Mexico’s GED testing centers, the nine that opened late only accounted for 14 percent of the state’s test-takers last year, according to a News 13 analysis of figures provided by PED.

(Important Note: Some exams for GED Testing Service require special arrangements and may not be available at all of the test centers listed.)

CNM is the state’s largest administrator of the GED. Its testing centers have been open since the beginning of the year.

The Albuquerque-based community college saw the number of people who took the test — and people who passed it — drop from last year to this year.

In 2013, 2,251 people completed the entire test at CNM; 1,705 passed. This year, through Oct. 20, just 651 people had completed the GED at the community college; 387 had passed.

Chris Cavazos, director of assessment services for CNM, echoed the adult education advocates’ concerns as reasons for the decline.

“I think part of the reason is the significant cost increase that occurred and the fact that it’s computer-based testing,” Cavazos told News 13. “There might be a fear by examinees to jump on the computer.”

Administering the test, he said, has gotten easier for CNM since the switch to computers. The change also provides instant feedback to students – they know whether they’ve passed right away.

Cavazos is hopeful, based on what he’s seen in recent months, that the initial pains associated with the more expensive, computer-only test may be subsiding.

“I think there’s that initial fear that the test is on the computer, but once they’re coming in, once they’re in our test center, sitting at the computer, they’ve already had at least one experience on the computer with the registration,” he said. “If they’ve done any practice testing that’s another experience with the computer prior to coming in here.”

CNM also offers vouchers to help students pay for the GED exam.

Guevara, of the advocacy group Encuentro, said getting a GED can make a huge difference for people and for their families.

“It is very important from many standpoints,” she said. “For them it could represent maintaining a job … It could mean getting a promotion at their job, it could mean an opportunity to continue to college.”

Geuvara added that, from her perspective, more options from PED would create more of those opportunities.

Timo Marquez agrees.

“It’s definitely a more difficult test than it was four years ago,” he said. “I would love the chance to go back and take it with the paper and pencil. I passed the science section, the language arts/reading section, and I even passed the history and social studies part with honors.

“The math has just been really tough, and it’s tough to come up with the money every time to keep retaking it. It’s tough, you know, because I’m pretty busy with work and my kids. But I’m going to find a way to receive that knowledge for the math – whatever I have to do. I want to continue on into those college classes.”

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