Changes to the high school equivalency test for 2014 has local and state adult education officials alarmed and confused about what next year will bring.

The General Education Development test, known as the GED, is being revamped after the nonprofit American Council on Education joined with the Great Britain-based Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishing and education companies, to create a new GED Testing Service.

The GED test is a high school-equivalency exam, an alternative to finishing high school. States have different requirements. In Maine, a person must be 17 to take the test, although those under 18 must have been out of high school for a year or have an “immediate need,” according to the Maine government website.

Whenever a new test is released — the current version came out in 2002 — people who have partially completed it must start over the next year. The GED is in five parts: writing, social studies, science, reading and mathematics, and people sometimes do the tests separately over a period of more than a year. If a test-taker fails one of the parts, he can take that part again — the parts that have been passed still count.

Last week, Susan Tuthill, director of Mid-Maine Regional Adult Community Education in Waterville, warned Waterville Board of Education members that the GED process as schools know it will end in December.

“We’re all terribly upset about it throughout the state,” she said at the board’s meeting.

Changes to the test include a switch from pen-and-paper testing to computer-only, a more detailed scoring system that will rate the students for college readiness and revised content to better match the Common Core State Standards, which are learning criteria adopted by most states, including Maine.

State and local education officials are still sorting out what it will mean and how it will affect Maine’s 80 or so GED testing centers.

State law doesn’t allow Maine to charge a fee to those who take the test. Most other states charge anywhere from from $65 in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to an average of $150 in California.

Gail Senese, state director of the Office of Adult Education and Family Literacy, which is part of the Maine Department of Education, said the higher expected cost of the new test has the state exploring high school equivalency testing alternatives to the GED. But she doesn’t know how much the cost would increase.

Maine spends about $90,000 a year for GED testing, according to Senese. Adult education centers, which conduct the tests, have to pay for staff and a site license, she said.

The revamped GED will cost $120 for the whole test, $24 per subject. GED Testing Service reimburses a portion to the testing site, Senese said.

In 2011, around 2,600 Mainers completed the test and 2,251 passed, according to Senese.

Looking for alternatives

Some states, including New Hampshire and New York, have issued request for proposals for alternative high school-equivalency testing. Both states are looking for companies that can offer computerized and pen-and-paper exams.

Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said the state could issue a request for proposals for a testing alternative to the GED.

“We’re just in the process of looking at all of the options,” he said.

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen would make a recommendation about what to do, and the Legislature would ultimately vote on a budget that includes funding for the testing, according to Senese.

State Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, a member and former chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said the one concern he’s heard from adult education leaders is the anticipated cost of switching to a computer-based test.

Langley said it’s important to keep the test affordable for many people who need it, but that a small fee could lead to better results if it made people feel they had more at stake.

“At this point, as economical as possible, and if it can be kept free, that’s the way I’d go,” he said.

Zane Clements, director of Augusta’s Adult and Community Education, said that although his center could host the new test, some rural testing centers could struggle with the necessary computer requirements — especially if they only have Apple computers instead of PCs.

Senese said the state sent surveys to testing sites to determine how many would need additional hardware to conduct the new test.

GED Testing Service spokesman CT Turner, based in Washington, D.C., said the new test requires at least two Windows operating system-based computers, and Apple computers can’t run the test.

Senese said the fact Apples can’t be used for the new test is news to her..

“I guess we’re not clear on that,” she said.

Turner stressed that the computer-based tests still must to administered by official test centers and that any online services claiming to offer GED tests are fraudulent.

Need for access

Adult education leaders say that offering free GED tests is crucial for many people needing high school equivalency for employment or further education.

“Many of the people coming into our program, the cost is prohibitive if they have to start paying for this,” Tuthill said. “We don’t want to turn anybody away if they can’t afford it. We want them to get their credentials.”

The state saw the number of test-takers increase by around a third after Maine law began requiring the tests to be free in 1991, Senese said.

Diann Bailey, director of Gardiner Adult Education, said the GED is a vehicle for adults to prove they have the equivalent of a high school diploma, necessary for many jobs and additional education.

“Whatever their next step is going to be, it’s their ticket to get there,” she said.

Bailey is concerned that if the state offers a different high school equivalency test, the certificate may not be viewed as highly as if it came from the GED test, keeping people from progressing with what they want to do.

Clements said he’s not concerned about that and has confidence in the state to choose a suitable testing service.

“I don’t think they’ll adopt a test that will not be accepted” by colleges and employers, he said.

Uncertain test contents

There is also uncertainty about what the new GED test will include and whether it will be more difficult.

In last year’s press release about the changes, the GED Testing Service called the new version a “more rigorous GED test aligned with Common Core State Standards.”

But the testing service’s spokesman said that changes in difficulty won’t be significant and are a result of any changes in the performance of graduating high school seniors. Turner said the difficulty is determined after testing the most recently graduating high schoolers for what they know.

Now, around 60 percent of graduating seniors can pass the test. He said that isn’t expected to change much for the new test.

But some officials nationwide say that’s not so; it will be harder to get a GED diploma when the new changes take effect, they say.

There will be some content change to better match the common core and the skills that people entering the workforce need to know, Turner said. This is because a growing number of jobs require more than a high school education, he said.

The GED “needs to become a stepping stone and not an ending point for a lot of people,” he said.

Part of the change that has caused some confusion and concern is the addition of some type of measurement for college readiness. Turner said the new test’s score report will include details of how testers fared in different subject areas as well as in college readiness.

The idea, he said, is that people taking the test will have a better idea of what subjects they need to improve on before taking college-credit courses. It could give colleges an idea of the skill level of matriculating students, he said.

Clements said those are worrisome developments.

“I do think that there is a lot of concern out there for that way of viewing test results and success,” he said.

He said Maine already has a focus on progressing students toward higher education after completion of GEDs and that the new scoring could discourage some test-takers.

“It’s such huge thing when someone does complete their GED,” Clements said. “I feel that there should be some attention to that success — take a minute to revel.”

He worries that a low college readiness score could discourage some students.

Increasing awareness

The one thing that adult education providers do know for sure is that anyone who has only partially completed the test by the end the year will have to start over in 2014.

Around 4,000 people in Maine have either started the test and not finished, or failed some portion, according to Senese.

Local, state and national groups have stepped up efforts to encourage some of those who haven’t finished to finish this year.

Adult education brochures and websites highlight the impending date when partially completed tests will expire, and local staff are contacting past students who are only a test or two away from completion.

The Finance Authority of Maine is gearing up for a statewide campaign to help adult education programs with promoting their local efforts to get people through their doors.

Elizabeth Vanderweide, director of business development at FAME, said the group will help amplify community-based efforts with marketing materials and advertising. She said the project is still being developed, but hopes are the number of people completing their GED this year will increase by 750.

The GED Testing Service is also encouraging students to make sure they complete the tests this year by working with educational and state entities, said Turner.

In the year before the 2002 test update, GED Testing Service saw a 20 percent increase in people taking the test, according to Turner. He said they expect at least a two-digit bump this year as well.

Tuthill, the adult ed director in Waterville, said she’s looking for additional money to continue the GED class through the summer, since it usually ends in May and starts up again in the fall.

She’s worried that students who have to start over next year will give up trying to earn high school equivalency. Tuthill said the transition will be difficult for her program will be difficult no matter what testing service the state ultimately chooses.

“The problem is we just don’t know what will happen, so we have to put our energy in helping the students finish,” she said.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
pkoenig@mainetoday.com