Sinking deeper into depression from being bullied, Marissa Lesperance dropped out of Palatine High School her junior year.
She didn't give up on her education or her life, though, and searched for ways to keep pace with the classmates she left behind.
Home schooling was too expensive. Then she learned she could take her GED, the high school equivalency test, through Harper Community College in Palatine.
"From the moment I walked into the orientation, it was just such an amazing atmosphere," Lesperance said. "It wasn't off-putting or scary. They really push you to do your best, but at the same time you never feel like you're alone."
Lesperance passed her GED exam, but she became one of a much smaller group of students to mark that achievement than in recent years. A new electronic version of the GED exam came online Jan. 1. It is more expensive and, now that the exam is aligned with state Common Core standards, it is, by most accounts, more difficult. Many test providers, especially those in the smaller collar counties, say fewer students are taking the exam and a smaller percentage passing.
Superintendents at regional offices of education in Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties have all noticed large drops in GED participation during the first seven months of the new exam.
About 600 people in McHenry County took the exam last year. Half that number passed, Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn said. By contrast, 84 people have taken the exam so far this year, and 10 have passed.
Schermerhorn blames the privatization of the exam through Minnesota-based Pearson VUE for many of the woes. The cost of the exam has more than doubled, from $50 to $120.
"Somebody is profiting significantly, and it's not our students and our state," Schermerhorn said. "The cost increase is a big deal. The people taking this test are not the wealthier people in our county."
Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation this month to strip all references to the "GED" from Illinois law. GED is part of Pearson VUE's brand name for the exam. Eliminating the reference to "GED" will give the state flexibility to contract with a different test provider in the future. Even if that change happens, the electronic format is likely here to stay.
Schermerhorn said the adult learners who want to take the exam now must also take the extra step of gaining enough computer literacy to take the online test. There is a fear attached to that technology hurdle for many, she said. But less GED success means less success in the workforce.
"We know if people don't graduate high school or have this equivalent exam, there is a 50 percent chance they will be unemployed for a long time," she said. "We have to give people a vehicle for success that's workable, and this vehicle is becoming less and less workable. It's awful."
The numbers are similar in Lake County, where 171 people have taken the exam so far this year, and 14 have passed.
Kane County tested upward of 1,800 people in recent years, according to the office's annual reports. This year, 173 have taken the test, and 23 have passed.
In Will County, 795 people took the exam by this point last year. This year, 188 have taken it. But unlike his counterparts those other counties, Will County Regional Superintendent Shawn Walsh wasn't ready to point to any inherent flaw in the new exam just yet. He said GED prep programs are still adjusting to the new exam as are testing sites.
"With anything new, there's probably a little reservation about trying it," Walsh said. "It may be a year or two before we can tell if there's a problem. If, after a year, you don't see things gradually moving up, maybe there's cause for concern."
The secret to turning around those numbers might be in following the example of what test centers in Cook and DuPage counties are calling a success at this point.
Depending on whether a DuPage County GED test taker is still tied to a local high school, he or she takes the exam through the regional office of education or the College of DuPage. Both outlets report no significant changes in the number of people taking the exam or passing so far this year.
DuPage County was one of the first places in Illinois the GED was offered online, starting in October 2012.
That was a big help, said Assistant Regional Superintendent Joseph Gust, who notes there are still many obstacles to keeping DuPage's GED program successful.
There were no practice exams for the new test available until the same month the exam went live. There was no easy method to register students for the new GED if they were still tied to a school district.
And there was no real way to know for sure how to prepare students for the content of the exam except for it being tied to Common Core standards.
"You want to talk about flying in the dark? We had every excuse built in if we weren't successful; we just chose not to fail," Gust said. "The secret to what we've done is simple: There is none. We prepared our kids to be successful on what we believed would be higher standards."
Harper College doesn't have hard numbers on how many of its students are passing the new exam. But Maria Knuth, adult educational development department co-chairman at the college, said members of her team are constantly refining the GED curriculum the more they learn about the new exam. They've also been able to help defray the higher cost of the exam for some students through a grant offered by the college.
"I don't necessarily think the test is more difficult, but I think there is more expected of the students in terms of what they need to know before they take the test," Knuth said.
"They may be taking longer to prepare. I think that's the biggest change we've seen. Initially, we had fears among ourselves about how the students were going to adjust. But we still have pretty good numbers of people taking the exam and, anecdotally, telling us they passed."
That GED success may be the difference between a very difficult life with few job prospects and future with continuous upward trajectory.
For Lesperance, it's also made a huge difference in her self worth.
"If I didn't find the GED program at Harper, I feel like I would have gone on the path of home schooling, and I feel like I may not have made it all the way through," she said. "If I would have given up on that, I probably wouldn't be going to college. I would have been sitting in a rut. Now I feel like a whole new person. I'm really happy. I don't feel worthless."
Lesperance will begin classes in business administration at Harper this fall.