The GED was the test that students who hadn't graduated from high school had to pass to move on to college or some careers. But it was phased out in New York at the end of December and replaced with the more challenging Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC). The new test is intended to "raise educational achievement for all students," according to the New York State Education Department.
Students like Althea, 51, are worried they may not be able to pass the more rigorous test. "I understand that they want to challenge you and make you work harder, but it's not feasible if you don't speak good English or [if you] have a disability," says Althea hasn't told her friends or bosses that she lacks a high school diploma and is taking a remediation class.
In December, an estimated 15,000 students rushed to take the GED before it was phased out, three times as many as the year before.
Some adult-education teachers are saying the TASC is being rolled out poorly, that they don't have time to prepare properly and that students may get frustrated and drop out. Some have even gone to Albany to advocate for the money they believe is necessary to make the transition more successful. But they are worried that all the political attention on pre-K has overshadowed the historic change under way for adults-learners.
Althea attends classes at the Adult Learning Center at Lehman College in the Bronx, where students and educators alike say they are stuck in a state of limbo. With less than a month until the new Common Core-aligned TASC test will be widely administered, teachers there haven't adapted their instruction because said they haven't seen a full version of the new test.
Teachers debate: Breadth vs. depth
The new TASC still has the same five sections as the old GED—reading, writing, math, science and social studies—but it will cover more advanced material and require more sophisticated answers. This aligns the test with the tougher Common Core standards.
The writing section will be more analytical and will include more non-fiction, says Jaye Jones, the director of the program at Lehman.
"The old writing test was more of a personal essay. They could really write from their own experience," says Paul Wasserman, who has been teaching GED prep at Lehman since 1991. He says the new essay requires a level of analysis that is harder than the writing expected of freshmen entering college.
Wasserman has started to prepare for these changes. He's begun having students summarize two related texts rather than just one, but hasn't yet asked them to do the more complicated task of analyzing them both.
The TASC test is supposed to gradually add new material and become more difficult, but just how gradually it will evolve isn't clear. Wasserman says he just ordered the first test preparation book that McGraw-Hill released in February.
"The old test was mostly a reading comprehension test," Wasserman says. "Students didn't have to have a lot of factual knowledge."
Wasserman has already started experimenting with ways to help his students memorize and retain more information. But this isn't a part of Lehman's current approach to teaching . "We've been teaching the idea that students should be studying something more in-depth over a period of time, rather than a scattershot American history in 10 weeks," Wasserman says.
The educators in the program worry that the greater emphasis on test preparation will come at the expense of developing their students' passion and love of learning. The new test may be unrealistic given the limited classroom time, says Mike Dooley, 67, who has taught in the program for 12 years.
"People are trying to make up for not having gone to high school by going three days a week for nine hours total. So the time doesn't really jibe," Dooley says.
Mark Trushkowsky, who trains math teachers at CUNY's 11 centers that teach the TASC, said he continues to instruct teachers to teach deeply even if it means not being able to cover all the material. The reason is that, in addition to requiring students to know more content, the test will ask harder questions.
For example, the GED might have asked how to find the area of a rectangle. In contrast, the TASC might ask how, given a certain amount of fencing material, a farmer could maximize the size of his rectangular garden, says Trushkowsky.
The only way he thinks students will be able to answer these more difficult questions is if teachers spend time going deeply into their subject matter.
"I want to make sure this test doesn't make classes become test-preppy. That didn't work for these students the first time," Trushkowsky says. "We're a second chance for these people and we all feel that responsibility."
Worries about discouragement
Jones, the program director for adult learning at Lehman, says she isn't sure how many students they will send to the first TASC test in March because she doesn't know who will be ready.
"I've spoken with students who feel very discouraged," Jones says. Teachers are now paying closer attention to the emotional cues students are giving off in class, she says, so they won't give up.
Even with all the challenges, Trushkowsky said that he expects the same percentage of students to pass the TASC as in the past, because the passing score is determined by how well current high school students can do on the test. The TASC would only become more difficult to pass if current high school students started to master the Common Core, which he doesn't think has happened yet.
Most of the students in a recent night class at Lehman said they didn't know much about the new test, or heard it was harder than before. Jenny Mendez, 28, tried twice to study for the old GED. But each time personal problems got in the way and she dropped out. Like most students there, she said she was most worried about the new math section.
The uncertainty isn't just affecting students. "I feel demoralized as a teacher," Bernie Connaughton, 59, who has been teaching adults for more than 20 years, wrote in an email.