The people who benefit the most by earning their GED will soon have the toughest time even getting access to the high school graduation equivalency credential, according to local test providers.
More than 27,000 Illinois residents took the GED exam in 2011. Nearly 16,000 of them passed all five courses in the exam. That was better than the passing rate in 2012 for Kane County, where only about half of the 1,500 residents who took the exam passed.
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Education experts say local and statewide numbers will surely drop come 2014 when a new, computerized version of the exam comes online.
The change follows a privatization of the testing program announced in 2011. The federal-level American Council on Education signed a deal with Pearson, a testing company, for a public-private partnership.
One of the results of that partnership will be an increase in the cost of taking the exam. In Illinois, the cost will rise from $50 to $120, and retesting for any failed courses will also more than double, from $10 to $25. Test takers also will need a credit card and an email address to register for the exam for the first time.
All of those are major roadblocks for people with low economic means, said officials at the Kane County Regional Office of Education.
"The number of people taking the test is going to drop," said Josh Boies, who oversees GED testing in Kane County. "And it's going to be people with the least resources who are going to be left out. That's a problem because we want people to be in the workforce, and this is going to be another barrier to that."
More than money
It's not just about the money, said Pat Dal Santo, Kane County's regional superintendent of education. In most cases, you need good credit to have a credit card. So many won't even be able to register to take the exam, she said.
The county also provides GED tests to about eight or nine jail inmates every month in hopes of giving them paths to a more productive lifestyle. But there is no computer lab at the Kane County jail. No computer, no test come 2014.
"When things become computerized and privatized you usually think of the costs going down and the barriers being removed," Dal Santo said. "That's not the case with this."
The regional office is hoping local churches, businesses and community organizations can come together and form a pool of scholarship-type funds that would assist people who don't have the money for the GED test. That hasn't happened yet.
Roycealee Wood, regional superintendent of schools in Lake County, said the availability of financial aid at the College of Lake County should provide some relief to GED test takers. But money won't give GED students the familiarity and comfort level with computers that many typically lack, she said.
"I would say I'm very concerned," Wood said. "Going to all computers -- boom -- like that would be even a bigger problem than the cost. The computer part really bothers me."
The College of DuPage was one of the early adopters of a computerized version of the GED. It began offering the current GED exam on computer last October.
DuPage County Regional Superintendent of Schools Darlene Ruscitti said she and her staff are aware of the federal changes to the GED testing. However, they don't yet have enough information to determine if a computerized version of the test would create roadblocks for some residents.
"We do know that the cost is going up," she said. "That is an issue."
Maria Knuth, adult educational development department co-chairman at Harper College in Palatine, shares the concerns about the price increase and shift to computers. She said the department is already researching grants that could help offset the price increase and exploring ways to teach students the computer skills necessary to take the test.
Knuth thinks the impact on the number of test takers or the workforce could vary. On one hand, the cost could deter people from taking it, but on the other, she said, 1.7 people in Illinois alone are without a high school diploma or GED.
"Those people still need, at some point, to come get their GED," she said. "You need to have your GED in order to perhaps get a job, (or) if you want to pursue your education."
Linda Davis, senior manager of adult education at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, said she thinks the price increase likely will result in fewer test takers, but she also believes the new test may provide a better gauge of a student's college and career readiness. Because the new GED is divided into four separate tests, Davis is predicting students will take one at a time instead of all at once.
She and Knuth also expressed frustration with getting more details about the new test.
"We've been asking and asking and haven't seen specific materials yet," Davis said.
Sense of urgency
The clock is also ticking on another stress point related to the changes coming in 2014.
The 2014 exam is a whole new version of the GED. That means anyone studying for the GED now, or who needs to retake and pass one of the five courses of the exam, must do it before the end of 2013.
"If you don't finish this year, they are going to wipe the slate clean, and you have to start all the courses over," Kane County's Boies said. "So we're putting the word out that if you haven't completed the exam, you have to have a sense of urgency."
And you'll probably also have to wait. Waubonsee Community College is one of the GED test sites in Kane County. A person signing up to take a GED exam today will already be put on a wait list that stretches into April.
Despite the criticism, the GED Testing Service, which created the exam, gave the new, computer version a thumbs-up in a report earlier this month that found adults taking the new exam have higher passing rates and finish the exam faster.
The report showed the failure rate on the computer exams was half the rate of the paper version. Adults were also 59 percent more likely to retake the computer version if they failed a test.
The use of a keyboard instead of a pencil also cut test times by about 90 minutes, the report stated.
• Daily Herald staff writers Jessica Cilella, Mick Zawislak and Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.