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NEW YORK — Nurul Ali was less than half way through the science portion of the new high school equivalency exam last fall when he closed his testing booklet in frustration. After a year of preparation, he didn’t recognize most of the topics.

“I thought, if I read any more of these questions I’ll go crazy, so I just closed my book and guessed,” said the 20-year-old Queens resident, who arrived in the United States two and half years ago from Bangladesh and finished tenth grade before he left his home country.

He was shocked when he got his results. “I guessed and I got the highest score on that [subject] than any of my exams,” said Ali.

Test Assessing Secondary Completion
Nural Ali, 20, guessed on more than half the science exam questions on New York’s new high school equivalency exam and passed, but said he didn’t recognize much of the material on which he was being tested. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

Last year, new high school equivalency exams were introduced nationwide in an effort to update the decade-old General Educational Development (GED) test and align it with new high school standards, known as the Common Core, adopted by a majority of states. A few states, including New York, opted out of the revised GED and are administering a new alternative — the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC — also linked to Common Core.

The GED has never been an easy test to pass for most people who need it – struggling young people who dropped out of high or middle school, and adults who left school years ago and now find they need additional training to get a decent job, and need a high school diploma before they are eligible for the training. But, historically, a majority of test takers have been able to pass with the help of prep classes.

Both the GED and its new rival, the TASC, are meant to be more difficult than the tests they replace and many are concerned that instructors have not received sufficient training to prepare students to meet the higher bar. When new – harder – Common Core tests were introduced to third-through-eighth graders here in 2012, pass rates plunged, outraging parents and educators.

In the Bronx, 30 percent of adults 25 years and older do not have a high school diploma, twice the national average.

But on this latest Common Core-based test, the percent of questions a student needs to answer correctly appears to be set low enough that pass rates at some training programs are actually rising and who passes can be random. After The Hechinger Report requested statewide TASC pass rates, the New York Department of Education decided to release the scores to the public this week, according to officials. The agency was unable to comment for this story before release of this information.

“They made a very hard test and [then] made it easier to pass,” said Joyce Paton, the college coordinator at the Bronx Youth Center, which saw its pass rates increase to 75 percent in 2014 from 60 percent on the old exam.

The exam has transformed from what was essentially a reading comprehension and basic math test, to one that tests wide swaths of knowledge in history, biology and includes problems from advanced classes on the math section. While the questions on the exam are purposely more difficult to answer, instructors say students can pass by answering between 30 and 40 percent of the questions correctly, depending on the subject matter. Most test questions have a choice of four possible answers, which means it is possible to score at least 25 percent by guessing.

The difficulty of the exam is expected to increase, until it is fully aligned with the Common Core standards in 2017. However, the number of questions that need to be answered correctly may not increase, depending upon decisions at the state level.

Test Assessing Secondary Completion
Seynabou Dia, 21, failed two sections of New York’s new high school equivalency exam and says she needs the certificate just to get a decent-paying job. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

The writers of the Common Core standards consulted universities and research institutions in an effort to create standards that would allow a student who graduated from high school to be ready for college courses. Students have traditionally used high school equivalency certificates for two purposes: as a step on the pathway to college, to prove that they can handle the material; and as a prerequisite for low-skilled work, or a job that provides on-the-job training.

Those involved in helping students prepare for the test say a lower bar to passing is an imperfect solution to a genuinely difficult problem – how to create an exam that is aligned to the tougher standards now being implemented in high schools, while addressing the fact that most of those trying to pass the exam — both young people who dropped out of high school years ago and adults — never had any exposure to the Common Core.

“It’s not great if somebody needs to take remedial classes when they get to college,” said Bruce Carmel, senior director of postsecondary planning in the education and youth services division of FEGS Health and Human Services, “but you also need a high school equivalency diploma to get a job at a McDonalds in some neighborhoods.”

“Students are here for a year, and we can’t teach them all of American and World history in that time,” added Carmel, who sits on the state’s high school equivalency advisory workgroup.

The new GED exams were offered for the first time in 2014, and information on pass rates from all sources is still preliminary. The GED Testing Service estimates that the number of people passing in 2014 was about 90,000, down dramatically from 540,535 in 2013 when there was a rush to take the previous “easier” GED and down from 401,388 in 2012. Pass rates were 75 percent in 2013 and 69 percent in 2012. Inside Higher Ed puts the 2014 pass rate at about 35 percent.

RelatedWill weak teacher training ruin the Common Core?

Pass rates on the GED in New York have long been the lowest in the country, hovering between 53 percent and 58 percent over the past decade, although some years the state has managed to inch ahead of Mississippi.

Participation in preparation programs, however, hikes up scores significantly. In 2011, the pass rate for New York GED test-takers who took prep courses was 76 percent compared with 46 percent for those who did not.

But for New York residents, the GED in any form is a thing of the past. When it was announced in 2011 that the new GED would be crafted by the private company Pearson as a for-profit product for the first time ever and cost $120 per exam, New York took the bold step of searching for an alternative. The state created a bidding process in 2012 and awarded an $8.1 million three-year contract to McGraw-Hill to create a test that would meet standards while also containing costs so that New York could continue to provide the exam for free to residents, as mandated by state law. As a result, New York is replacing the GED with TASC. Indiana and West Virginia also opted to make TASC their sole high school equivalency exam, and six other states offer it as an option as well. The rest of the country offers Pearson’s GED or another alternative known as the HiSET, created by the Educational Testing Service.

“I guessed and I got the highest score on that than any of my exams.” Queens resident Nural Ali, 20, who passed the science section of the TASC exam by guessing on half the questions.

But teachers say preparation for the new TASC exam has been difficult. High school equivalency instructors tend to be generalists, well equipped to teach basic math and reading comprehension, but without extensive experience in particular subject matter or the Common Core standards. On top of this, program directors say, there were no preparation materials available for the first few months of 2014.

Education experts also note that even though there are no national standards for science or social studies, those sections have been drastically altered from the previous exam, with in-depth questions about the French Revolution and how to balance complex chemistry equations. Although instructors are not allowed to see the exam they administer, they hear a lot of complaints from the students who take it. One teacher said her students told her the social studies and science portions included words and concepts they had never heard of. For example, she said, students had to answer the question, “What is a subduction zone?” (It’s a region where one tectonic plate slides under another and sinks into the mantle of the Earth.)

“We’re actually at kind of a crisis point,” said Lowell Herschberger, director of career and education programs at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation in Brooklyn where pass rates dropped significantly. “The K through 12 Common Core was rolled out with millions of dollars of training and planning, whereas with the adult ed system it was kind of like, okay, here’s the exam, here’s the Common Core, go for it.”

A coalition of literacy groups last year asked for $5 million in training and professional development funds to get teachers up to speed, a request echoed by the New York State Board of Regents, but Governor Cuomo didn’t include any additional funding in his budget request last year.

“Let’s make sure that the students are really going to be supported in trying to reach this bar, and let’s not create a barrier for people who want to get a job at a retail store,” said Kevin Douglas, deputy director for New York State policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses. “Expectations can’t leapfrog the resources that people need to get there.”

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In New York state about 15 percent of adults older than 25 are without a high school diploma, similar to the national average. But in New York City that number rises to 20 percent and in the Bronx it’s 30 percent. The number of people living in poverty in each location mirrors those numbers almost exactly. (The poverty rate nationally is 15 percent. It’s around 31 percent in the Bronx, 16 percent in New York state and 20 percent in New York City.)

“You can spend all of your time studying and still you won’t find anything you studied on the test when you take it,” said Seynabou Dia, 21, who took the exam last October and passed three sections but failed social studies and math.

Dia, who needed to complete just one more year of high school when she arrived in New York in the summer of 2013, found the social studies exam confounding. After answering 10 questions, she realized her time was almost up, and guessed the rest – but failed the section. On the reading section, she began to run out of time after completing about two-thirds of the questions, guessed the remainder, and passed.

Her goal is to become a nurse, but for now she makes $10 an hour without benefits working as a nurse’s assistant. Her hours are unreliable and she often doesn’t get enough work to pay all her bills, so she is looking for a better job.

“Even at Macy’s they ask you for a GED,” said the Manhattan resident. “I really need to get to college.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

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