The stereotypes about adults seeking GED certification can be ugly and simplistic. But the reality is that many lack a high school diploma for reasons largely outside their control: health problems, family issues and immigration status, just to name a few.
Some, like Rebekah Petrakovits, were home-schooled without proper oversight from school officials who were supposed to monitor their progress.
"It’s really easy in Pa. to just fall through the cracks of your home schooling and be progressed to the next grade," Petrakovits said. "So I never actually got sent to a regular school. It just kept saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re fine, you graduated this grade, you’re good to go on to the next one.’"
The 22-year-old found out — too late — that she hadn’t met the requirements to graduate high school. It didn’t bother her much at the time. Petrakovits had family members who hadn’t finished school either, and they seemed all right. That was before she took an interest in military service and discovered that high school equivalency was the most basic requirement to enlist.
"And that’s when I realized that if I wanted to do this, and I knew that it was the one thing that I absolutely had my heart set on, I needed to get the GED," Petrakovits said.
Petrakovits wanted to enlist as a healthcare specialist, in part because the medic training she’d receive in the military would give her a jump on EMT certification later in civilian life.
She’s not alone.
Education specialist Amy Snyder works with students like Petrakovits at the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, or GPLC, which offers GED preparation and testing services.
"A lot of our students are interested in getting into the healthcare field because there is really a career ladder for them there," Snyder said.
That’s one reason why Pennsylvania and most other states are moving to implement universal high-school graduation requirements under the Common Core standards.
As a result, the GED test is being updated as of Jan. 1 to better reflect a new emphasis on math and science content, and also a shift toward critical thinking, as opposed to simple reading comprehension.
"I think it is going to be very challenging for students in the first three to six months of the new year to really prepare for this test," Snyder said. "We know that we are probably not going to be sending students for the new test for the first few months because we know people are not going to be ready for it."
Snyder believes the tougher exams will better serve students in the long run by holding them to a higher standard, thereby forcing them develop skills they’ll need in a modern workforce.
In the near term, students who have already begun the battery of tests but have not yet passed all five sections are in a tight spot. They have until the end of 2013 to finish; otherwise, they’ll have to start over next year on the new exam. That would mean a major setback for people who’ve already been juggling work, family and other commitments to make time for homework and prep classes at programs like GPLC.
Some 40,000 Pennsylvanians are in that situation now, according to GPLC Executive Director Donald Block. Many in the Pittsburgh area won’t be able to sign up for a testing time before the deadline, whether they’re ready or not.
"Knowing that the old test is going away, all the slots for all the testing centers in Pittsburgh are filling up," Block said. "People are being referred to go far out into the suburbs or another county somewhere because there’s so much demand for the old test right now."
For those who were able to secure a test time in the final weeks of 2013, there’s a lot of pressure. Rachel Baron teaches GED classes for GPLC. She worries about her students who are facing the Dec. 31 deadline.
"It’s heartbreaking," Baron said. "If somebody goes through and out of five sections they pass four, and because of scheduling there’s no chance to retake the test and they have to start with a whole new test — that’s a lot of work and expense, and it can be very frustrating."
The change could also mean a new financial hardship for many. The updated exam is being offered by the newly created GED Testing Service: a for-profit venture that’s jointly owned by the American Council on Education and UK-based publishing giant Pearson PLC. With $1.4 billion in operating profits last year, Pearson is one of the world’s largest publishers of educational materials, and one of the biggest players in the standardized testing economy.
As states switch to the new, for-profit testing service, the test fee will nearly double to 125 dollars. That’s a hefty sum for many of GPLC’s clients.
"We’re talking about some very low-income people who sometimes struggle with finding bus fare to get to class," Block said.
For now, the Literacy Council is able to help students out with the fee if they meet program requirements. But small nonprofits like GPLC aren’t necessarily all that much better equipped to absorb rising costs than their low-income clients. They’re incurring other new expenses, too: in particular, investment in new technology as a result of the switch to a computer-based exam. GPLC will not only have to buy new computers and software, but will also have to spend time teaching students computer and keyboarding skills — all on their current budget.
"So we’ve had to plan for new equipment, for new books, for new curriculum, with very little extra help," Baron said. "We are basically being asked to do this out of thin air."
Meanwhile, there’s demand for workers in growing industries like energy and healthcare. But companies and their political allies say too many applicants, including high school and even college graduates, have inadequate math and science skills. Instead of working to close that gap, government funding for adult education has been declining steadily for years.
The Literacy Council does get some financial support from industries that depend on a skilled workforce. Block said the financial industry in particular has been supportive both financially and with placement for GPLC graduates, but the private sector in general could do more.
There’s also a role for the public to play.
"We always need new volunteer tutors," Snyder said. "Especially people that have interests in social studies, in science, in math, that are comfortable teaching content as well as skills."
Rebekah Petrakovits completed the exam and received her GED in September, with help from her teacher and volunteer tutors at GPLC. She knows some of her classmates won’t be as fortunate, but she thinks most will persevere in the end.
"It’s stressful, I think, for a lot, to have to be coming closer and closer to that deadline," Petrakovits said. "It’s easy to get frustrated. But I think that a lot of them are just so strongly motivated that no matter how old they are or what situation they’re in, they’re just in the mindset of ‘I’m going to get this now.’"