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GED test overhauled, and some states give failing grade

Carolyn Kaster / AP file

Rosemary Downing teaches a General Educational Development test preparation class in Washington. Americans who passed part, but not all, of the GED test are rushing to finish it before a new version rolls out in January.

The GED test, for decades the brand name for the high school equivalency exam, is about to undergo some changes. 

On Thursday, an upgraded GED exam and two new competing equivalency tests offered in several states will usher in a new era in adult education testing. 

The GED (General Educational Development) exam was created in 1942 to help World War II veterans who dropped out of high school use college benefits offered under the GI Bill. This will be its first face-lift in more than a decade. 

The revamped test is intended to be more rigorous and better aligned with the skills needed for college and today's workplaces. The new test will only be offered on a computer, and it will cost more. What consumers pay for the test varies widely and depends on state assistance and other factors. 

Even before its launch, officials in many states have balked at the cost increase and at doing away with paper-and-pencil testing. At least nine states — New York, New Hampshire, Missouri, Iowa, Montana, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine and West Virginia — severed ties with the GED test and adopted one of the two new tests that are entering the market. Three others — Wyoming, New Jersey and Nevada — will offer all three. Tennessee will offer the GED test and one other, and other states are expected to decide what to do in the coming months. 

That will leave test takers, adult educators and states grappling with new questions: How do you best prepare students for the tests? Which is best, by price and quality? How will the tests be accepted by the military, employers and colleges? 

The advent of new tests has sent thousands of test takers rushing to complete sections of the old test they had left incomplete.

Once the upgrade happens, the old scores of "partial passers" will no longer be accepted. 

"Angst is the good word" to describe this time in adult education, said Lennox McLendon, executive director of the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium. 

Marty Finsterbusch, president of ValueUSA, a resource organization for adult learners, said he fears there will be a lot of unintended consequences and he's worried about adult learners "getting caught up in the crunch of this." For example, he said, he wonders what will happen to someone who partially passes a test in one state, then moves to another state that doesn't offer that type of exam. 

"The system will work itself out eventually, but how many people are going to get hurt in the meantime?" Finsterbusch said. 

More than 700,000 people took the GED test in 2012. The average test taker is about 26, and many people seeking a high school equivalency diploma are poor. Nationally, about 40 million American adults lack a high school education.