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GED tests going digital — and getting costlier

Published Apr. 1, 2013

Janet Vasquez will pick up her pencil early next month surrounded by test-takers anxiously trying to pass their high-school equivalency exams.

Hour after hour for three days, she'll read prompts. Flip back and forth between pages. Bubble in answers.

She's glad for the chance, but there's one thing she doesn't like: the format.

"On paper, it takes a lot more time," said Vasquez, 21, of Plant City, who aspires to become a nursing assistant.

She said she would find it much easier to click the answers to her General Educational Development test on the computer, where she does most everything else. She's not alone.

Beginning January 2014, the GED will go all-digital across the country with a new version of the test, ending a more than 70-year run as a printed exam. The new version also will be more rigorous and more expensive, almost twice the current $70 fee.

Together, these changes mark one of the biggest transitions in the GED's history — particularly the switch to computers, which has some digitally challenged students on edge.

But it's also coming with some unexpected news: In the regions where computer testing is in place, students are actually doing better. A lot better.

In the first year of implementation across the country, about 88 percent of students passed the computer test, compared with roughly 71 percent who passed the paper test.

"That encouraged me," said Laura Sargent, managing officer of adult education for Pinellas County Schools and one of several officials who say computers are the way to go.

"Everything is about computer literacy," said Deborah Sass, chief GED examiner for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Though no scientific study has been conducted, GED officials and experts agree on the reasons for the performance boost.

It's easier for students to manage the test, they say.

Gone are the days of reading passages that span multiple pages, flipping back to look for answers. There's no more worrying about bubbling in the correct answer or erasing stray marks.

"All of those things translate into a less-stressful testing experience," said Randy Trask, president of GED Testing Service, which oversees the test.

Students also won't be taking the test in large groups, where the stress of finishing at the same time as everyone else can add anxiety, Trask said.

On average, adults who tested on computers completed their exams 90 minutes faster than the paper-and-pencil version, according to the testing service. That gives them more time to review their answers.

Officials with Citrus County schools, one of the first Florida districts to offer computer testing using the current 2002 version of the GED test, have seen benefits with the new way.

"They're so much more comfortable on the computer," said Judy Johnson, an assistant director of adult education in Citrus.

She said students can see the prompts and the multiple-choice questions on the same screen, eliminating the need to go back and forth.

"There are a lot fewer kinds of errors in terms of transferring," she said. "There's less opportunity for losing information."

Scheduling the computer test also is easier, she said.

Pasha Antonenko, an assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, said he was intrigued — and a little surprised — by the gap in results between computer and paper test-takers.

"This is the first time I've seen such a big difference," he said.

It makes sense, he said, because people are learning more digitally than in the past.

Adult education centers across Tampa Bay will begin rolling out GED computer testing in the coming months. All must have it up and running for the launch of the new GED test on Jan. 2, 2014.

The current printed test encompasses five subjects that all must be completed together for those taking it the first time. But students can retake any portions they failed, one at a time.

People who want to take the paper version or need to do retakes must complete them by December or will need to restart the entire exam. Some testing centers are filling up rapidly as people try to finish.

Starting in January, the computer test will have only four subjects and students can complete them one at a time, on different days if they choose.

Last year, roughly 61,000 adults took one of the five subject tests, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Sargent, the Pinellas official, said the transition to computers will be intimidating for some, especially older students who have been out of school for a while.

"We're going to help them through it," she said.

Denise Moen, Hernando County schools' supervisor of adult and community education, said her anxiety about the change is down since students have been coming to computer labs.

"We're finding that even our most digitally challenged adults are picking it up," she said.

Plant City resident Samantha Vivlemore, 27, is not one of them. She plans to take the paper test and wants it to remain an option.

"I'm completely clueless about how to use it," she says of the new test. "There are people out there to this day that aren't comfortable with electronics and computers."

The move to computers isn't the only change.

The new test will be tougher because it is aligned to the more rigorous Common Core state standards, set to be fully implemented in 2014. That means more analysis and more writing.

It also will be more expensive. The cost will jump to $130.

"The $70 is a big barrier," Sargent said. "Now we're looking at almost doubling. It's going to be a large issue for a lot of our students."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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