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A test of mettle

Carolyn Coplen wished she hadn't waited to take the General Educational Development test. Or, better yet, she wished she’d finished high school.

Since a new, more rigorous series of GED tests rolled out this year, fewer students are taking it, and those who do are taking longer to prepare for it. 

 "It's scary. It's intimidating. But it's also exciting," said Coplen, who is in her second term of GED classes at Rogue Community College.

Last year, 12,000 students statewide completed their GED diploma, compared to only 863 students in the first seven months of this year. In Southern Oregon, 140 students completed the GED test in 2012-13, and 174 students completed it in 2013-14.

“This year, there have been eight reported completers,” said Julie Rossi, the chairwoman of Rogue Community College’s adult basic skills department.

Coplen, 55, needs her GED diploma to enroll in the two-year occupational therapist assistant program. She has been a bartender most of her life and works full time at the Corner Club in Central Point. “I’ve got a doctor and two other specialists saying, ‘You've got to find something else,’ ” she said, referring to the toll bartending is taking on her health. “I want to be an occupational therapist assistant. ... I love helping make life a little better. So this is a new beginning for me.”

Teachers warned her the new GED test would be harder. Coplen said her advanced math class started out with about 30 students and has since dwindled to fewer than 20. There were 12 students in the class on Thursday.

On average, students take two or three terms with three to four classes per term before braving the exam, said Laurie Savage, lead instructor of RCC’s GED program at the school’s Riverside Campus, where GED students range in age from 16 to 78.

The new GED test series rolled out in January and was the first major revision since 2002.

The series is now computerized and aligned with Common Core standards, which Oregon adopted in 2010. The math and language arts standards are being implemented in school districts around the state and define what students should know at every grade level so they gradate college- and career-ready.

David Moore, Oregon’s director of adult basic skills education, said there was strong evidence that the old test series was not preparing students for a postsecondary education, forcing them to take remedial classes before they could begin taking college-level classes.

“The intent was to align the GED with Common Core state standards so the stakes got higher,” he said. “The response has been much more positive in terms of preparing students for credits post-secondary.”

While the old series comprised five written subtests, the new one has four electronic subtests — math, social studies, science and language arts — that vary in length from 90 minutes to two and half hours and typically are taken one at a time, said Teresa Alonso Leon, Oregon’s GED administrator.

“There is now a stronger emphasis on algebra, lengthier reading passages in science and social science, and the writing is more complex — much more aligned to academic reading and academic writing than the old test,” Moore said.

Students who started the test series last year were told they had until the end of the year to complete the remaining tests or they would have to start all over in January.

“The new test was so much changed that there was no comparability between the old test and the new test,” Moore said.

Last year, 35 percent more people completed the GED test than in 2012, Moore said. The same thing happened in 2001, the year before Oregon switched from a 1988 version of the GED test, he said.

Laurie Rydell, RCC’s director of adult basic skills, said the math portion now contains college-level algebra, including quadratic equations and linear formulas. Before, the highest math included was pre-algebra.

Because it’s an electronic test, students can receive instant feedback on their test, Rydell said.

“But it’s a really big challenge for the older generation who aren't as familiar with computers,” she said.

Portland White, 51, concurs. In addition to taking science and advanced math, White is taking computer and keyboard classes this term.

“I don’t know computers so that scares me,” said White, who doesn't have a computer at home. “I’m taking typing just so I know I can answer the essay question in time. I needed to pick up speed and accuracy.”

White said she quit high school at the end of her sophomore year for “circumstantial reasons.”

She homeschooled her three children, and after they graduated, she decided to go for it.

“I just know I need to do this for me and my children and my grandchildren,” she said.

So far, White has passed the language arts test and completed practice tests for each subject.

The practice tests are offered through the test publisher, Pearson VUE, and cost $6 each. They let students know whether they are “likely to pass,” “not likely to pass” or whether “it’s too close to call.”

Savage said that under the 2002 GED test, practice tests were free and readily available. But because of the publisher’s pricetag, students are now waiting longer to take the practice tests.

The cost of each test also has increased, Leon said.

“It used to be $155 for five tests, but now it’s $152 for four tests,” she said. “That’s $38 a test.”

Savage said although she likes that the new test requires more critical thinking and better prepares students for the rigors of college or a job, she dislikes that the publisher can dictate prices.

“It also makes us (the instructors) feel more disconnected from the students,” she said. “We used to have access to their practice tests and could give them feedback. Now, unless they bring the results to us directly, we have no way of knowing how they are doing.”

Greg Maloney, 55, has passed two of the four tests — math and social studies. He has two years of high school and about 37 years as a mechanic to his credit.

“Last year, I was laid off and was having trouble finding work,” Maloney said. “I started listening to my body telling me, ‘You can’t be a mechanic all your life.’”

Maloney wants to study to become a millwright, but to enroll in RCC’s 18-month, millwright certificate program, he had to have his GED certificate.

He plans to take his third test sometime this month. The first two tests, he said, covered everything he’d studied in classes at RCC.

“I think people’s anxiety levels are up just because of the great unknown,” Maloney said. “I felt pretty comfortable. It’s just a test, and the worst thing they’ll do is make you take it over.”

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Rogue Community College math teacher Griffin Colegrove helps Travis Cunningham, 20, left, and Zachary Rens, 26, prepare for their GED exams. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell