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Imperium Watch: GED Goes Corporate

A vital aid to educational and economic mobility will become the property of a for-profit company.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

In a time when social and economic mobility in the U.S. are not what they used to be—for some time now, studies have shown that Americans are less likely than Canadians or Europeans to better their personal finances by as much as their parents did—it's worth a look at what's happening to a crucial aid to mobility in America, the GED.

The salvation of generations of high school dropouts, the General Educational Development certificate came into being in 1942, to help returning World War II vets get their economic feet under them. Since then, 18 million Americans have used it to get jobs and/or enter college, according to the American Council on Education, which has been the sole provider of the test.

The fee for the test has varied depending on the state in which it's taken; in New York the exam is free, while in California it costs $100. The fee is $65 in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, $75 in Vermont.

Now the GED is slated to change from a nonprofit enterprise to a program administered by a for-profit company, Pearson LC—a British conglomerate that owns everything from publishers such as Penguin, Prentice Hall and Financial Times Group to educational and testing enterprises (including Amherst-based National Evaluation Systems). Pearson's ownership of Edexcel, one of Britain's five examination boards, raised a conflict-of-interest flag when complaints arose that some lines of Edexcel's testing were linked to Pearson publications, but the counterargument was that the questions covered a wide range of information found in other publications as well as Pearson's.

Adult education teachers and others involved with GED testing and certification are worried about what some describe as the "corporate capture" of the test. The alarm has already been raised in New York that the fee could jump from zero to as much as $125 ($25 for each part of the five-pronged test), the unconfirmed but expected price when Pearson takes over the test in 2014. A rise in fees for the GED, says Linda O'Connell, an instructor at Holyoke Community College's Adult Learning Center, will be a hardship.

"We are really talking about people for whom $65 is a major investment," says O'Connell. "It's not chump change when every penny—for people living below the poverty line—is accounted for."

And when Pearson takes over the program, people who have completed parts but not all of the test will see their previous scores voided and have to begin again. That's led administrators in many states to begin warning their test clients now to complete their testing as soon as possible.

Pearson will require that the test be taken on computer, and only at Pearson's testing sites. That's led to worries about what will happen to people who aren't computer-literate or comfortable with computer-based tests. There are also concerns about how many test sites there will be, and how accessible they will be to people who don't have cars. As an adult education official with Virginia's Department of Education said, "The test-takers may have difficulty getting to the tests because there won't be as many access points."

The ACE says the revamping of the GED program is being done for the purpose of expanding access to it. But Nicole Chestang, executive director of the Council's GED program, was unable to answer a question from the Chronicle of Higher Education last March about how Pearson's involvement would affect the cost of the test to individuals, or to the states, who now lease it from ACE. (In 2010 the ACE grossed a little over $17 million from the GED program.) What the long-term results will be in terms of cost and service when a program so vital is subsumed by a profit-making corporation remains to be seen.

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