It doesn't seem fair that for those in the suburbs taking the new GED exam, success might depend in part on their ZIP code.
The more rigorous test is being offered to Illinois dropouts this year to align with tougher learning standards in high schools. Since Jan. 1, the suburban area has seen discrepancies in both the number of people who are taking the test and the number passing it, depending on the county they live in, as reported by James Fuller this week.
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Of course, it shouldn't be that way. Anyone seeking success in the exam -- and the greater earning power such credentials bring -- should be afforded an equal opportunity.
Education officials in the smaller counties are aware of the big drop in participation and success rates in their areas. Regional Superintendent Shawn Walsh in Will County -- where 795 people had taken the exam by this time last year compared to only 188 so far in 2014 -- said it was somewhat expected. "With anything new, there's probably a little reservation about trying it," he said.
Indeed, bumps in the path are inevitable with change, but the update is needed for the test to stay relevant. An equivalency test should ensure that takers are as prepared for the job market and higher education as high school graduates are.
As the dust settles, though, superintendents and adult education officials in Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties should pinpoint the reasons for the downslide and take note of what's happening in DuPage and suburban Cook counties, where testing success has remained level.
In DuPage, the regional education office and College of DuPage got an early start on the exams and began immediately gearing up students in their programs for the higher standards. The focus on rigorous preparation has worked. Likewise, the adult education program at Harper College reports positive marks because, officials say, it also has begun to expect more from students.
Another deterrent to test takers may be the jump in the exam's cost from $50 to $120. While that can be a significant hurdle for the unemployed, some perspective may help: The 2010 census shows that graduates earn an average of $10,000 more than high school dropouts. In that context, a $120 investment would seem like a no-brainer.
Still, the sudden increase deserves wider scrutiny. Recognizing the higher cost, the legislature recently removed the trademarked term GED (General Education Development) from Illinois lawbooks. This will allow the state to consider other testing companies and perhaps lower costs in the future. For now, local grants and scholarships could fill gaps for low-income test takers.
GED finishers typically receive higher wages and gain a greater self-worth, but others benefit as well. Educated communities are associated with lower crime and more civic involvement. The challenge for education officials will be to identify problems quickly and ensure that all who want to take the test have every chance for success.