The changing landscape of high school equivalency assessments

The years 2014–2015 are monumental in terms of the development and rollout of revised high school equivalency (HSE) exams. In keeping with the mission of the Ohio Adult Basic and Literacy Education (ABLE) Professional Development Network (PDN), the PDN team has been building expertise in the content, complexity, and format of the new HSEs in preparation for the creation and delivery of professional development and resource support for Ohio’s adult education professionals as they prepare students to succeed in achieving the updated credentials.

Increased demand for testing opportunities, organizational reshuffling, and new standards have led to a more competitive marketplace for publishers and testing companies. There are currently three HSEs being offered across the United States — though they are as similar as they are different from one another. Possibly the most familiar is the General Educational Development test, also known as the GED®. The oldest of the three, the revised GED® is the product of a partnership between the American Council on Education (ACE) and Pearson. CTB/McGraw-Hill, in an effort to provide an alternative to the GED®, has developed the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC™), and Educational Testing Services (ETS) has partnered with Iowa Testing Programs (ITP) to deliver the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET™).

To somewhat varying degrees, the content and complexity of the exams align with both the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the College and Career Readiness (CCR) Standards for Adult Education, a subset of the CCSS. Like the CCSS, the CCR standards detail the content and skills necessary for students to be considered college- and career-ready and broadly focus on six major instructional shifts. These shifts, reflected in the new assessments, include a concentration on complexity, evidence, and knowledge of content-rich nonfiction in English language arts as well as focus, coherence, and rigor in mathematics. Additionally, each assessment uses Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (as opposed to Bloom’s Taxonomy) as the framework for determining and measuring the cognitive complexity and rigor of test items. When blended together, the revised content and increased rigor of the tests result in assessments that more accurately measure the knowledge and skills of test takers while also raising the standard for what is considered college- and career-ready. However, the similarities in assessments end there. Though the CCR standards and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge form the foundation for the content and rigor of the new tests, the structure and design of the GED®, TASC™, and HiSET™ are quite different from one another.

The 2014 GED® includes four subject areas: Reasoning Through Language Arts, Mathematical Reasoning, Science, and Social Studies. Though the stand-alone essay component of the test has been eliminated, writing is still an important element of the exam and students will be required to complete multiple writing tasks throughout the test, including an extended response in both Reasoning Through Language Arts and Social Studies and short answer items in the Science subtests. In another departure from previous iterations of the GED®, new item types will provide test takers with opportunities to interact with test items and demonstrate skills and knowledge through the completion of drag-and-drop, hot spot, and cloze items in addition to the traditional multiple-choice questions. Because the test is almost exclusively offered in a computer-based format at approved Pearson Vue centers, most test takers will receive their results immediately. For those students who need to retake one or more subtests, GED Testing Service® (GEDTS) permits two retakes per year and offers discounted pricing on retakes in some states. GEDTS has also developed the online GED Ready™: The Official Practice Test, which students may access for a fee and receive a targeted prescription for remediation upon completion of the practice test.

CTB/McGraw-Hill’s TASC™ covers five subject areas: Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. Multiple choice items form the bulk of the test with additional writing tasks, including an extended writing prompt (evidence-based) on the Writing test and gridded-response questions on the Mathematics test. Though CTB/McGraw-Hill has not released an official practice test for the TASC™, examinees can order a copy of the TASC™ Test Readiness Assessment to help them practice and prepare. Practice materials are also available online. Since the test is available in both online and paper-based formats, test takers have the option to select their preferred testing mediums. Individuals opting to test online will receive their scores almost instantaneously while those who elect to take the test on paper will have to wait up to 10 days to receive their scores from CTB/McGraw-Hill. Those individuals who need to retest will be allowed to retake those subtests twice within a year without charge.

The HiSET™, like TASC™, evaluates test takers’ knowledge and skills in five core content areas: Language Arts-Reading, Language Arts-Writing, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. All test items are multiple choice with the exception of the essay portion of the Writing test. ETS has developed sample items and paper-based practice tests for each subject, though the practice tests are not prescriptive in the same way as GED Ready™. Although the test is available in online and paper-based formats, the delivery method varies by state. Immediate, unofficial score reporting for multiple-choice items is available for those test takers completing the assessment online, while individuals residing in states that have opted for the paper-based format will need to wait on their results. Two free retakes are included in the initial testing fee and students may elect to retake subtests of the complete battery twice within one calendar year.

In addition to the differences in format and delivery, the three tests vary in price. The costs associated with the assessments have led to much debate, discussion, and decision on the part of states in recent years. The GED®, offered in the majority of states, has increased dramatically in price — costing test takers up to $120 for the entire battery of subtests. Some states have worked with GEDTS to offer test vouchers for both the official test and GED Ready™, reimbursements, and free and discounted pricing on retakes and practice tests. Affordability, however, remains one of the towering concerns about the new GED® among educators and students. Of the nearly 40 states offering the GED®, several also offer either the TASC™ or HiSET™ as an option. Though TASC™ and HiSET™ account for only about 20 percent and 10 percent respectively of HSE tests offered nationwide, their competitive pricing and standards-aligned content are making them appear more desirable to states seeking to offer test takers more affordable options. With a base price of around $50 for the entire battery of five subtests, TASC™ and HiSET™ may be available in an increasing number of states soon.

Despite the differences among the tests, one thing is clear: the bar has been raised for students and adult educators. Increased requisite knowledge, stronger foundational and critical thinking skills, and more robust writing exercises are all characteristics of the new high school equivalency credential. Transformative professional development and innovative resource support are necessary to help both instructors and students not only become familiar with the new assessments but also — and more importantly — learn the critical content and skills required of the new testing landscape. The Ohio ABLE PDN is committed to providing training and resources in support of those students preparing for the next step — whether postsecondary or employment — in order to open new doors of opportunity for themselves as they continue on the path of lifelong learning.

Contributor: Kate Fergus, Jody Angelone