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State picks HiSet exams to replace GED tests for high school equivalency

Union Leader Correspondent

January 12. 2014 6:39PM

For most New Hampshire students, the Common Core Standards-based tests will start in the spring of 2015, but for those pursuing a high school equivalency diploma, new exams are beginning now.

As of Jan. 1, New Hampshire no longer offers the General Education Development, or GED, tests that provided a credential commonly accepted as an alternative to a high school diploma. Rather than the GED tests, the state has opted for the HiSet exams, one of several new equivalency testing programs that, like the GED, will be based on the Common Core State Standards.

Adopted by 45 states, Common Core Standards define what students should know in math and language arts as they complete each year from kindergarten through high school graduation. The National Governors Association developed the standards in 2009 to boost student achievement and better prepare graduates for college or careers.

“HiSet tests are moving toward aligning with Common Core. We are moving from a norm-based test to a standards-based test,” said Bryan Larson, chief examiner for Salem’s Adult Education center.

Norm-based assessments measure how people perform compared to others who take the test, while standards-based tests measure performance based on set criteria such as Common Core.

But Larson said he and others at the Salem center try to avoid the rhetoric around Common Core, which has generated much controversy and resulted in supporters and opponents speaking out at school board meetings around the state.

“We give students what they need. A GED means you have the same reading, writing, math and critical-thinking skills as a high school senior,” he said.

And like a high school diploma, a high school equivalency credential, whether it’s a GED or a HiSet certificate, represents a certain level of capability.

The plan to overhaul the GED tests began in 2011 when the American Council on Education, an organization of college and university administrators that launched the GED tests in 1942 to help World War II veterans, teamed up with Pearson VUE, a British educational publisher and testing conglomerate with $9 billion in annual revenue.

ACE and Pearson announced that GED would become a for-profit business, and that participants in the program would receive an improved series of tests that would incorporate higher-thinking skills they say are part of Common Core. But the new tests would be given on computers, a problem for some testing centers that lacked the necessary technology and infrastructure. And the average fee for GED candidates would jump from about $65 to $120.

Mary Phillis, the chief examiner for the Nashua Adult Ed center, said Pearson, which offers a wide range of exams for many types of professional accreditations and licenses, also wanted GED centers to provide those tests.

“That just wasn’t part of our mission,” said Phillis.

Adult education leaders in several states, including New Hampshire, began shopping around for an alternative to GED. The non-profit Education Testing Services, ETS, developed the HiSet tests, and the for-profit publisher McGraw-Hill come up with the Test Assessing Secondary Completion or TASC test.

Pearson and ACE sniped at competitors and claimed their GED exams were the only valid reflection of a high school education. But last winter, New Hampshire was the second state, after Montana, to sign on with ETS and the HiSet tests.

Phillis said one of the advantages of HiSet tests is they are available online and in traditional paper form.

“We’ll have both,” she said. “We have such a wide range of people of all ages coming in from all over the world. Some people, especially older people, are more comfortable taking a test on paper.”

And HiSet, which includes five separate tests on reading, writing, math, science and social studies, costs $95.

Pearson has been defensive about doubling the cost of the GED tests, and the company said the increase is “not extreme.” But as Phillis and others in the field of adult education point out, many candidates for a high school equivalency credential are minimum-wage earners hoping to find higher paying jobs, and for them those dollars matter.

Phillis said there are some concerns about how people will do as the HiSet tests begin incorporating new Common Core-related material.

“We’re working on it, and our teachers have been gearing up for the changes for more than a year,” she said. “It will be a gradual transition, but it’s still a challenge.”

Phillis said those who take the HiSet tests will receive two scores. The first score will determine if the candidate passes and receives the high school credential; the second will show where that individual stands in the spectrum of college readiness.

Approximately 800,000 people take high school equivalency exams each year. According to a recent survey by GED, the majority of the test takers said, for the first time in history, that they hope to continue their education.

Phillis said the second score will help teachers identify each student’s strengths and academic needs, and that will benefit those who plan to go on to college and other training programs.

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