Making it more difficult to get a high school degree

Starting this month, the high school equivalency exams taken by people who dropped out of school and immigrants seeking a foothold in the American education system became harder and potentially more expensive, causing concern that fewer will take and pass the exams.

At a time when a high school diploma — much less an equivalency certificate — is losing currency in the labor market, exams being introduced this month that will start to be aligned with the Common Core, a set of rigorous academic standards for kindergarten through 12th grade that 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted.

In an echo of the debate surrounding the standards in elementary and secondary education, instructors and officials at adult education centers worry that increasing complexity could demoralize a population that already struggles to pass the current test, commonly known as the G.E.D.

Many students try for years to feel confident enough just to take the test. Every year, about 700,000 people take the General Educational Development high school equivalency exam, and about 70 percent pass. New tests in math will add more advanced algebra, while reading and writing tests will assess higher-order critical thinking skills.

Starting this month, two more test developers, the Educational Testing Service and McGraw Hill, will also offer high school exams, potentially adding to the confusion.

Two years ago, the American Council on Education, the nonprofit group that has administered the G.E.D. exam for seven decades, joined a venture with Pearson, the publishing giant. As the new venture, GED Testing Service, announced plans to move the test entirely online and raise its prices, some states balked and invited other test developers to enter the market.  The new tests will cost $120. GED Testing Service currently charges states $15 just for the text booklets, in addition to other fees. In New York, the state covers the students’ cost of the test, paying $60 to administer each exam; in Massachusetts, test takers pay $65 to take exams in five subject areas.

So far, 40 states plan to offer the new G.E.D., while seven states are transitioning to the Educational Testing Service exam. New York and Indiana have selected McGraw Hill. New York’s costs will rise to about $80 per test.

The new G.E.D. exam will initially be graded using two separate benchmarks: one representing a pass rate equivalent to what 60 percent of current high school seniors could achieve, and one that measures readiness for college.

Across the country, a little over a third of those who gain their equivalency certificates enroll in college. Many of them have trouble keeping up with college-level work. In Massachusetts, for example, 94 percent of those who pass the test and enroll in a community college take at least one remedial math course. Adult education centers will also face challenges upgrading their curriculum because they depend largely on part-time, uncertified instructors who are typically paid less than teachers in public schools. Federal funding for adult education remains barely above the level it was a decade ago.

Some educators worry that not all students will benefit from the shift to academically rigorous standards, especially when it comes time to look for work. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said standards based on “higher and higher levels of abstraction in traditional academic disciplines” could “have relatively little to do with what you need in the real world.” But other educators say the skills are overlapping, and that a high school equivalency exam must prepare students for more academic work if they are to gain the further education they need to get the best jobs.