Pennsylvania students lag in passing GED test
Kenny Washington found out the hard way how tough it is to find a job without a high school diploma.
Four years after dropping out of Northgate High School at age 16, Washington, who is unemployed, wants to get his GED so he can provide for his daughter after she is born.
“I gotta pass this the first time out,” said Washington, 20, of Bellevue, who is enrolled in a preparation course Downtown to take the General Educational Development test. “I know I could have graduated if I had stuck with it, and I want to be able to be a good example for my little girl.”
Three of every 10 people taking the GED in Pennsylvania fail the test, statistics show, giving Pennsylvania one of the lowest GED passing rates in the nation at 69.6 percent for first-time and repeat testers, according to a report from the GED Testing Program. The GED Testing Program is an arm of the American Council on Education, a nonprofit based in Washington that tests those without a high school diploma on math, reading, writing, science and social studies.
Eight states — Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York and Texas — and the District of Columbia had lower passing rates. New York was at the bottom with a pass rate of 59.7 percent.
There are more than 1.6 million adults in Pennsylvania without a high school diploma. Last year, 10,000 people failed to pass the exam. There is no clear-cut reason for why Pennsylvanians have such a hard time passing the test, those who work with the GED said. The same test is administered to candidates in the United States, the U.S. territories and Canada.
“It’s something that’s hard to answer, but you have to look at how the students are being prepared,” said John Tyler, associate professor of education, public policy and education at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and a national expert on the GED. “If they’re taking the practice tests and scoring well before they take the test, they’re more likely to pass.”
Local program directors place part of the blame on the barriers the typical GED candidate faces. Pennsylvania does not require people to take a GED preparation course, though some states do.
“A lot of our students have hectic lives,” said Alex Dow, Downtown Center manager for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, which receives between five and 10 calls each week from people looking for GED prep classes. “They go through a lot.”
According to Census data, more than 39 million adults 16 and older nationwide do not have a high school diploma and are not enrolled in an educational program. Many people who take a GED prep class have very low math and reading levels, said Nieves Stiker, director of the community education department at Carlow University, Downtown.
That poses a challenge for teachers, who often have students of different ability levels in the same class. But the bigger challenge is to get students to come to class. Many have jobs that require shift work, while others have to procure child care, Stiker said.
“The people that come on a regular basis are focused,” Stiker said. “But some people come to us and feel very adequate within a couple of weeks, while others, no matter how hard they study, it’s harder. Sometimes, it takes more than one try.”
Nationwide, 72 percent of first-time GED-takers pass the battery of tests, compared with 69 percent in Pennsylvania. However, 34 percent of repeat testers in Pennsylvania pass, while nationwide, the figure is 31.3 percent.
“Many times people become defensive because they failed before. Self-esteem may sound like a warm-fuzzy, but it’s not. We need to help improve and change their behavior, habits and attitudes about learning and about themselves. Then they will have a better chance to succeed,” Stiker said.
Each GED preparation program is managed differently, Tyler said. Some, such as the program offered by the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, pay for students to take the test only if they pass the practice test. Others, such as the preparation program offered by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, require students to attend class regularly and offer tutoring sessions.
Tyler said requiring standardized GED preparation could help those trying to pass the test, which was revised in 2002 to be more intensive. At that time, 42 percent of high school seniors used as a test group failed the new GED.
Rather than teaching to the test, GED officials want courses to focus on the skills associated with the test.
“We need to get a true reading of true skills,” Tyler said. “From a social good standpoint, even if it means first time pass rates are a bit lower, that’s the best thing to do.”