Doug Saunders and his sister, Shatoya, never finished high school. Shuffled between group homes and guardians in New York City and other states—Shatoya went to 13 different schools before dropping out in 11th grade—both left school to start earning money.

Now, they're looking at high-school equivalency diplomas from opposite ends. Doug, 23, passed his GED exam in July. "When I found out I got it, the feeling was unbelievable," recalled Doug. "The door was wide open." From here, he plans to get a business degree, becoming the first college graduate in his family.

But the high-school equivalency test is about to get much harder, prompting a rush for Shatoya, and others, to take it before the standards change. She is hoping to take her test before the end of the year, even though she can't get enough time off work to take a prep course. "I know that they're making the certificate a little more challenging," said Shatoya, 21. "I'd rather get it now than later on."

The GED exam used to be produced by the non-profit American Council on Education. But in 2011, the council partnered with Pearson Inc. to form a for-profit company called the GED Testing Service. In January 2014, the new company will introduce a more rigorous version of the exam that emphasizes analytical thinking and wider factual knowledge.

Increasing the rigor of the exam was a "moral imperative" for the council, according to spokesman CT Turner, who says the changes are designed to "help some adults move from being a high-school dropout to being prepared for a middle-scale job, which is what most of these people will need if they really want a decent-paying job."

Only 9 percent of the 47 million new jobs estimated to open between 2008 and 2018 will be available to people without a high-school diploma, according to a 2010 study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Yet, one of every five New York City residents over 16 and out of school lacks a high-school diploma or the equivalent.

Tougher standards

Twelve states haven't accepted the new GED. New York was the first state to reject it, on the grounds that the cost to administer it—approximately $120 per student—was double the previous cost. New York doesn't charge residents to take the test, so the state shoulders the cost of administering the exam.

The alternative exam developed by New York State is "similar to the present GED," according to a June 2013 report from the state education department. But unlike the present GED, it will measure foundational concepts in the Common Core State Standards—that is, a set of language and mathematics skills developed in 2010 by U.S. governors and state commissioners of education. The exam will continue to ratchet up in difficulty over the next three years, reaching the same level of rigor as the new GED by 2016.

Shatoya Saunders isn't alone in wanting to take the GED before it changes. Between November 2012 and June 2013, 12.1 percent more GED tests were administered in New York than the previous year, according to the education department. By early September, of the New York City GED testing centers that publish test slot availability, most had no slots left in 2013.

Given that students will have to "start over" to begin studying for the new exam, in the words of the official website, the 2013 GED Campaign to Finish has been launched by the Fund for Public Advocacy, the non-profit branch of New York City's public advocate office. The campaign sought to identify 3,000 people who almost passed the GED and to make sure at least 75 percent pass the exam before it is no longer available in 2014.

The new exam "is absolutely going to be more difficult, because the common core standards are more difficult," says Paula Gavin, the Fund's CEO. In the science section, for example, questions on New York's new exam ask about solar nuclear fusion, whereas the science section of the current GED demands more basic knowledge, such as how to extract salt from saltwater.

GED pass rates are already low in the state. In 2012, New York State had the country's lowest pass rate—53.8 percent, compared to the national average of 69 percent, according to the GED Testing Service's annual report.

New scoring system

Another source of anxiety is a new two-tiered score system. Successful test-takers will achieve either a regular high-school equivalency diploma or, if they do better, a higher-level "college and career readiness" diploma.

ACE introduced this distinction because "we needed a high-school equivalency level that was pegged to the performance of graduating high-school seniors, and unfortunately common core standards haven't been incorporated to the K-12 curriculum yet," Turner says.

But the new dual system could make post-secondary educational and job opportunities more difficult, according to Kevin Douglas, who coordinates education and job-training programs at the United Neighborhood Houses of New York charity.

"What happens if you don't get the college and career readiness score?" he says. "Could you get into CUNY if you have the high-school equivalency diploma but you didn't necessarily reach that higher threshold? Would it affect employer decisions?"

A CUNY admissions officer confirmed Douglas's fear. To the best of her knowledge, both scores will be required for admission to CUNY, though the admissions team hasn't yet received formal directions. She declined to provide more information.

As with the old GED, the passing score on the new exam will be based on a sample group of recent high-school graduates, pegged to a score at which 60 percent of them pass. Although there might be an initial "implementation dip" in the number of passers, New York City's Deputy Superintendent of Alternative Schools and Programs Robert Zweig doesn't believe the new exam will "lower the numbers of people who can pass that test."

But "if I had to guess, I'd say pass rates would go down slightly," says Douglas.

Broader costs

The lack of a high-school equivalency diploma is a growing barrier to employment, according to Leah Hebert of Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, a non-profit that runs job-development and educational programs for disadvantaged New Yorkers.

Doug Saunders took his GED preparation course there after being turned away from jobs as a doorman and a Staples supervisor.

"More and more employers are wanting a GED or high-school equivalent that didn't even a couple of years ago," Hebert says.

Low GED pass rates don't just affect those taking the test. A 2009 report by the Community Service Society, an anti-poverty organization (and City Limits' parent company), noted that over their lifetimes, each person who doesn't graduate high school costs New York City "nearly $135,000 more than they pay in taxes, for expenses such as incarceration or shelter."