New high school equivalency exam raises more questions than answers

At most Barnes and Noble sites in the city, prep books for the old GED are still being sold. Books for the TASC are sold online, or "print by demand."
At most Barnes and Noble sites in the city, prep books for the old GED are still being sold. Books for the TASC are sold online, or “print by demand.”

— When a new high school equivalency exam replaced the GED in New York on January 1, neither educators nor students knew what to expect.

They still don’t.

The new exam is called TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion) and it’s different from the GED in several ways. For starters, in compliance with federal standards, TASC is common-core aligned. Schools and educators throughout the city are trying to prepare students for the new test, but uncertainty and confusion about what the test will be like is raising much uncertainty and confusion amongst educators and students.

“The first year is going to be challenging,” said Ken Small, development director of Bronx Works, which offers a multitude of services such as youth programs, workforce development and services for seniors in the Bronx. The Bronx has the lowest high school graduation rate – 55.4 percent – in the entire city.

Small added that the concern among educators and those who administer the test is a repeat of what happened when standardized common core exams were administered in city schools last year when students scored extremely low on the new exams. According to a report released by the state for the April 2013 exams, almost 30 percent of city students in grades 3 to 8 met or exceeded the math proficiency standard, and a little over 26 percent did the same for English Language Arts.

“The big question is how all of this is going to play out,” said Small.

Instructors have been preparing to teach the new exam by adapting a new curriculum in compliance with common core standards.

“Before, you needed basic level skills to do a good job on [the equivalency exam]. Now, students need to know things like analytical expository writing,” said Ira Yankwitt, executive director of the Literacy Assistance Center, an organization that provides professional development services to numerous education practitioners in New York City.

Some instructors at Grace Outreach, a non-profit that offers education services to women only, have undergone training at the Literacy Assistance Center to upgrade their curriculum. Based in the Melrose section of the Bronx, Grace Outreach will spend almost $65,000 to prepare for the new exam.

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“We knew we needed training and knew what we needed to do,” said Andrew Rubinson, executive director of Grace Outreach. To adjust for the new test’s demands. Rubinson expects the center to acquire three-dozen laptops, desktops and tablet computers for students to use.

Will employers be able to distinguish the difference in who took which exam?

“Probably not, at least for the time being,” said Rubinson. “Eventually, the word will get out that this exam is more demanding, and that people who took TASC are more prepared.”

There are still five states — Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia, and Nebraska — that have not fully adapted to the common core (Nebraska only adapted the common core for English Language Arts). Moreover, there are 41 states that still offer the GED exam.

For those gearing up to take the TASC, the publisher of the new exam, McGraw Hill, has sample questions for the new test on its website.

“I think it is fair to assume that the questions on the website reflect the content and level of difficulty of the test itself, but to know for sure you’d actually have to ask someone who’s taken the test after they’ve taken it,” said Yankwitt.

Study guides for TASC are not offered in print in many bookstores across the city. Barnes and Noble sells the book in what they call “print-on-demand,” which means that they have to put in a special order for patrons who want it.

“Several customers have complained about our store not carrying the [TASC] book, but I don’t know why we don’t carry it,” said Francis Soto, a manager of a Barnes and Noble store in the Bronx.

When asked why GED books are still on the store’s bookshelves, a Barnes and Noble spokesman said: “There may be a reason as to why somebody might need it. Our goal is to offer all books to all customers.”

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The company then issued a statement via email: “We are currently phasing out GED editions in states where the GED is no longer being offered due to recent changes. We now carry the McGraw-Hill Education TASC edition, which is currently arriving in Barnes & Noble stores.” The email did not provide a time frame for how long the process would take.

Although students can still take the new test on paper, the exam will slowly be phased-in so that it is completely computer-based by 2017. As a result, many students, especially older ones who aren’t adept at using computers, fear that it won’t be easy for them to take the exam electronically. Some students that live in lower income neighborhoods also worry about their limited Internet access and lack of home computers.

According to a report published by the NYC Comptroller’s Office in April 2013, 37.1 percent of residents in the Bronx report that they live in a household that lacks a computer. That’s the highest percentage in the city.

Meanwhile, people like Luz Figueroa, 31, who plan on taking the new test worry about whether they will be able to pass it. Figueroa took the GED in 2009 and passed three of the five sections. Because she had to work to make a living, she waited until this year to try again.

“I didn’t grow up with a computer, but I know how to use it a little bit,” she said. “I’m nervous and don’t know what to expect. I’m upset I waited so long.”

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