What Test Takers Have to Gain from New High School Equivalency Exams

Published feb. 19, 2014

2014 has ushered in a new era in the world of high school equivalency assessments. These assessments offer an alternative route for students who, for one reason or another, could not complete a high school diploma. And we are not talking small numbers here: nearly 40 million U.S. adults 16 and older lack high school credentials, the bare minimum of entering postsecondary school and/or getting a job. Consequently, a growing number of youth and adults will, in the coming years, go back to school with the hopes of passing a high school equivalency exam.

For many years, the General Education Diploma (GED) was pretty much the only game in town. According to American Council on Education (ACE) data, more than 17 million adults have passed the GED since 1942. A new version of the test went into effect this year; the exam is now aligned to Common Core Standards, entirely computer-based, and designed to assess whether exam takers are college- and career-ready. Also noteworthy is that the new GED is co-owned by a for-profit joint venture between ACE and Pearson Education.

Meanwhile, other players have been hard a work developing their own tests to compete with the GED. Educational Testing Service, a large non-profit company, has developed the HiSET exam, which went into effect in January 2014 and is also aligned to Common Core Standards. A third player, CTB/McGraw-Hill, a for-profit company, developed the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC), which also launched in January and is fully aligned to, you guessed it, Common Core Standards.

In this battle of the test makers, one wonders what test takers stand to gain or lose from the debut of these new exams. I believe that there are reasons for test takers to be cautiously optimistic. For one thing, competition is typically a good thing for any market; over time it increases choice, reduces cost and creates better products for consumers. For another—and this is critically important—the effectiveness of any high school equivalency exam will, from now on, be measured solely by how students who pass it fare in postsecondary education and the world of work.

To be fair to test makers, ensuring that students who pass the GED, TASC or HiSET are successful in postsecondary education is not just a matter of equivalency exams. It is also about putting in place supportive policies, sustained funding, quality programming, and adequate accountability measures to serve students returning to school. The fact is in today’s labor market, a high school credential alone will not be sufficient to enter a family-sustaining career.

So what should we do to help the millions of youth and adults who are already signing up for these tests? Answer: How about a meaningful postsecondary bridging experience for every single one of them? We have a unique opportunity to build on the new equivalency exams to institute clear and transparent pathways to a postsecondary credential for all high school equivalency diploma seekers. Now is the time to do it.

Find more information on the three-phase model—Enriched Preparation, Postsecondary Bridging, and First-year Support, three programming phases to help returning youth and adults earn a postsecondary credential with value in the labor market.