By Stephanie J. Montoya
The students in Geri Irving’s HEP class at Northern New Mexico College are bright. As she announces the day’s lesson, workbooks flip swiftly open as the sound of pencils eagerly writing fills the room.
These students come from near and far. Young and old, experienced and inexperienced, from all walks of life they sit together each day with one common goal: to pass the GED and embark on their future.
Because of language currently in the state’s educational standards law, however, many of these students will face unexpected challenges toward getting their diploma.
Difficulties began after Pearson, a private publishing company bought the rights to the GED test from the American Council on Education, a public taskforce that had offered the test since the 1940s. New Mexico’s law, which was implemented in 1999 still uses the term “GED,” locking all New Mexico adult education testers into using the Pearson branded test.
The New Mexico legislature is currently considering a bill which could expand testing options in light of two additional, federally-approved tests—the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) and the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET).
“The reason we’re bringing this is because trademarks should not be in statute,” said Senator Gay Kernan (R-Hobbs), who is introducing S.B. 44 to change the law’s language. “Now we have an opportunity, should the bill be signed, to go out for bid to choose testing options that better fit the needs of New Mexicans,” she said.
Kernan introduced a similar bill last term, which was passed by the legislature but pocket-vetoed by Governor Martinez due to concerns about terminology. Kernan anticipates the bill will pass this session.
Students in Northern’s High School Equivalency (HEP) program wrote letters to legislators and the governor this January, telling their stories and urging for passage of the bill.
More than 20 states have already opened the bid process to other test providers with legislation pending in several others nationwide.
New Test, New Challenges
Another concern stems from the fact that Pearson has made dramatic changes to the test to better reflect skills needed in today’s workplace and to align with new common core standards. Some of these changes include increased emphasis on upper-level math, a requirement to take all sections of the test at once, electronic-only testing, and doubling the cost to $120 per test.
Irving’s students are hoping lawmakers will consider the TASC test, which would allow a paper-pencil option, cost $50, increase more gradually in difficulty from the 2012 GED test, and return the option to take or retake one subject at a time. Students will also be able to keep scores for portions of the test they have passed.
Students who failed to pass the GED in 2013 will be required to take the updated test without the option to retake individual subjects. Students must also achieve an average score of 410 in addition to passing each subject category. Previous scores will not count going forward.
“I’m only off by twenty points but all my money went down the drain because now these scores don’t count,” said Aida Saucedo, a student in Irving’s class at Northern.
“It really puts our state at a disadvantage,” Irving said. “Many students already passed several of the tests, but now need to start over so New Mexico’s pass rate will be a lot lower than it should be.”
Student Wanda Rose had an above-average score of 2252 points but missed passing the writing and math portions by one point. She currently works two part-time jobs and two fill-in jobs to make ends meet, with constant pressure from her employers to get her GED.
Many of Irving’s students are unemployed, commute long distances to get to class, and have children and families. Northern’s HEP program provides a ten-week stipend for transportation and meals, money that is not going as far as it used to.
“I’m going to have to stop going to classes for a while,” student John Padilla said. “I need to get a job. I can’t just wait to take the test again.”
Single parent Lucero Rodriguez is also feeling the pressure. “You work hard and when you don’t make it, that’s when the depression sets in,” she said. Rodriguez said that given the new changes, many students want to give up.
Northern’s students however, are not. When asked who planned to attend college, every hand in the room went up. Some have already proven to be college-ready but are still struggling with the GED test.
“Bill or no bill, we’re going to keep on trying,” Padilla said, but had this message for lawmakers: “please, pass this bill. It means a lot to our lower communities—this is all we’ve got.”