CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The high school equivalency exams taken by people who dropped out of school and immigrants seeking a foothold in the American education system are about to get harder and potentially more expensive, causing concern that fewer will take and pass the exams.
At a time when a high school diploma -- much less an equivalency certificate -- is losing currency in the labor market, exams being introduced in January will start to be aligned with the Common Core, a set of rigorous academic standards for kindergarten through 12th grade that 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted.
In an echo of the debate surrounding the standards in elementary and secondary education, instructors and officials at adult education centers worry that increasing complexity could demoralize a population that already struggles to pass the current test, commonly known as the G.E.D.
"There is a lot of fear of it becoming too challenging," said John Galli, assistant director at the Community Learning Center, an adult education center run by the City of Cambridge, near Boston.
Many students try for years to feel confident enough just to take the test.
Maria Balvin, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade in Lynn, about 10 miles north of Boston, has taken classes on and off for six years.
Ms. Balvin, 21, a single mother of two children, ages 3 and 2, said she was daunted by the academics. Math is her biggest fear. "I don't understand anything about it," she said.
Every year, about 700,000 people take the General Educational Development high school equivalency exam, and about 70 percent pass. New tests in math will add more advanced algebra, while reading and writing tests will assess higher-order critical thinking skills.
Starting in January, two more test developers, the Educational Testing Service and McGraw Hill, will also offer high school exams, potentially adding to the confusion.
The changes have caused anxiety as instructors and students try to prepare for the unknown. While many states have already selected a test company, Massachusetts is one of several still reviewing their options.
"The information we have is still very much up in the air," said Catherine Pautsch, education and career pathways coordinator at Youth Build Just-a-Start, a nonprofit group that helps young adults like Ms. Balvin prepare for high school equivalency exams and develop social and emotional skills for college and work. "We haven't had anyone take the test yet, so we're not sure what it's all going to look like."
Two years ago, the American Council on Education, the nonprofit group that has administered the G.E.D. exam for seven decades, joined a venture with Pearson, the publishing giant. As the new venture, GED Testing Service, announced plans to move the test entirely online and raise its prices, some states balked and invited other test developers to enter the market.
Randy Trask, president of GED Testing Service, said the price increase, raising the cost of the test to $120, would cover services like same-day scoring and detailed exam reports for students. GED Testing Service currently charges states $15 just for the text booklets, in addition to other fees. In New York, the state covers the students' cost of the test, paying $60 to administer each exam; in Massachusetts, test takers pay $65 to take exams in five subject areas.
So far, 40 states plan to offer the new G.E.D. test in January, while seven states are transitioning to the Educational Testing Service exam. New York and Indiana have selected McGraw Hill. New York's costs will rise to about $80 per test.
Officials at Educational Testing Service and McGraw Hill say they will offer both online and paper versions initially and will gradually adjust the tests to align with the Common Core standards, which are still being put in effect in elementary and secondary schools throughout the country.
Most public school students will not take annual standardized tests based on the new standards until 2014-15. (Kentucky and New York are the only states that have administered Common Core aligned tests so far.)
The new G.E.D. exam will initially be graded using two separate benchmarks: one representing a pass rate equivalent to what 60 percent of current high school seniors could achieve, and one that measures readiness for college. The Educational Testing Service and McGraw Hill said they would also use two separate benchmarks.
Eventually, the two pass rates will most likely converge. Instructors in adult education centers worry that students will become discouraged.
"A lot of the people haven't exactly had great success in school," said Karl Steenberg, director of adult education and literacy at the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College, in Missouri. "Some of them are very bright and probably dropped out of school for social reasons, but many of the students also have a real history of not being successful at school at the academic stuff."
Across the country, a little over a third of those who gain their equivalency certificates enroll in college. Many of them have trouble keeping up with college-level work. In Massachusetts, for example, 94 percent of those who pass the test and enroll in a community college take at least one remedial math course, said Bob Bickerton, senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Adult education centers will also face challenges upgrading their curriculum because they depend largely on part-time, uncertified instructors who are typically paid less than teachers in public schools. Federal funding for adult education remains barely above the level it was a decade ago.
Nevertheless, instructors in adult education centers are introducing new approaches. One evening this week at Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences, which is operated by the Somerville Public Schools in Massachusetts, Hannah French guided a dozen men and women through a four-paragraph essay on cells.
She noted a question on a work sheet asking the students to draw generalizations from the text. "What is the skill you need?" Ms. French asked.
Hesitantly, a few students called out. "Infer?"
"Yes," said Ms. French. "That is great higher-level thinking."
Some educators worry that not all students will benefit from the shift to academically rigorous standards, especially when it comes time to look for work. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said standards based on "higher and higher levels of abstraction in traditional academic disciplines" could "have relatively little to do with what you need in the real world."
But other educators say the skills are overlapping, and that a high school equivalency exam must prepare students for more academic work if they are to gain the further education they need to get the best jobs.
"I think the G.E.D. was not rigorous enough," said Janice Philpot, supervisor of Adult and Continuing Education at the Somerville center. "You think about the skill set that is now needed to be successful in our world and in our culture, and we need to test that."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 12, 2013 2:01 PM