About 20 students attended Bob Price’s afternoon math class Thursday at The Learning Connection in downtown Juneau. Adults ranging in age from 20 to 50 years old were learning about fractions and percentages that day. Some of the students in Price’s class have decades of work experience.
After 90 minutes of instruction, Price ends the class with a reminder to all students to finish their General Educational Development testing by Dec. 20, when the center closes for the holidays, or start all over next year.
“You don’t want to be one of those people saying, ‘Aw man, all that work I did, all that writing and so forth was wiped out,’” Price said
A student at the front of the class speaks up.
“Why do they want to change it?” the student asked. “If it works and it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
“You gotta understand,” Price responds. “All 50 states have to do it. It’s a way of putting accountability into the system.
Each one of the students in Price’s class is in a race against time. Some of the students have been working on completing their GED for months. Some have worked on it intermittently over several years. A few have started the process only in the last few weeks. They all must complete their testing before the end of the year or start all over with the new tests that will be implemented Jan. 1, 2014.
Next year, GED testing will be only offered on a computer — no more paper tests. Testing will be more expensive, too. The current cost for someone to complete GED testing in Alaska is $25. It will cost $120 in 2014.
The new tests were developed to hold GED-seeking students to the same standards that most traditional high school students across the nation are now subject to. The Common Core State Standards have been adopted in 45 states, excluding Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Virginia.
The GED Testing Service, which is responsible for developing the test and assessing completed tests, is a partnership between the American Council on Education and the education company Pearson. On its website, the GED Testing Service says that by adopting the common core standards, it’s ensuring those with GED certificates remain competitive with those who’ve earned a high school diploma.
A piece of paper, the GED certificate, can mean a better job and more money. A high school diploma or its equivalent is a baseline requirement for most employers. It hasn’t always been this way, said one student.
Lavina Jennings, 50, dropped out of high school, she said, because she wasn’t interested. She said she started work on her GED more than 30 years ago, before her son was born, but her life went in a different direction.
“When (my son) was born, I had taken the post office test for employment and on the application I told them I was pending my GED completion,” Jennings said. “I got the job and I started during Christmas. With 13-hour days there was no time to go and get my GED. I had a job and was working, so it kind of went to the wayside with raising kids and whatnot.”
Jennings eventually had two more children. She no longer works at the post office and her husband recently lost his job at the Greens Creek Mine after dislocating his shoulder, she said. Jennings’ husband had to complete his GED as part of his Workers’ Compensation retraining. She decided to support him by getting her GED at the same time.
“He never got one because he’s always had good employment and good money until this time,” Jennings said. “Now about every job application that you look at says you have to have your high school diploma or GED equivalent.”
Jennings’ 23-year-old daughter has joined her parents so she can also complete her GED before the deadline.
“It’s kind of a family thing,” Jennings said. “It’ll be nice to have accomplished and finished it. It’ll be a great Christmas present, a great birthday present.”
David Rose, 49, started his GED testing about six or seven years ago, he said. Thursday was his first day back in class.
“Through my life, I took some pretty hard turns,” Rose said. “After my mother passed away, I was only 17, I kind of gave up and just ran through a bunch of things.”
Rose said he moved around a lot while growing up. He went to schools in Hoonah, Juneau and Seattle. Rose said he’s held jobs for years at a time before, but his alcohol use was problematic at times. He said he’s been sober for three months.
“I’m 49 years old and my goal is to get my GED and go for a long-term job where I can continue paying off my child support,” Rose said. “I feel like I need this here to better my life and to stay off the streets, because they’re only making bigger jails for us homeless people.”
Andrew Jamestown started working on his GED in August.
“I was just enjoying life and all of a sudden this whole deadline showed up,” Andrew Jamestown said. “I’d been thinking I wanted to get one. I was tired of bumming.”
Jamestown dropped out of Yaakoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School in Juneau when he was 18 years old. He’s now 21. “I just couldn’t do it no more,” Jamestown said. “It just felt uncomfortable being there while I was homeless and it got hard to concentrate when I started getting to know everybody.”
Jamestown has already passed four of the five required tests.
Valu Iputi, 44, started work on her GED in September 2012, but with four school-aged kids at home she said it’s been difficult to complete. She said she was able to come back to The Learning Connection after summer vacation from school was over.
Iputi’s father died when she was an infant. She said she dropped out in the 11th grade because school was too far from where she lived and her brother needed help supporting the family.
Iputi said her husband has been encouraging her to get her GED.
“I didn’t want to come back because I was thinking I’m too old to come back to do this,” Iputi said. “But my husband told me, ‘you had a lot of experience in school, so you need to go back and fight for your GED. You need to complete your school.’”
Mary McCafferty is the program manager at The Learning Center, which is part of the Southeast Regional Resource Center. The program offers GED preparation classes, computer classes, citizenship classes and English as a second language classes. McCafferty said that while she is concerned about the cost of the new test, she thinks that Alaska’s adult educators are ready to implement the new standards.
“We have a group of really dedicated instructors who are prepared to continue giving instruction,” McCafferty said. “I think there will be a learning curve for everybody, but we have good leadership in our state and our adult education program is really strong.”
Alaska’s adult educators will learn more about the specifics of the new tests in October during a conference in Anchorage.
McCafferty said she’s preparing for a rush of students over the next few months. She was at The Learning Center when the test was last updated about 11 years ago. She said the classrooms were packed everyday.
McCafferty said the biggest fear for some students is that they won’t do well. Many haven’t been inside a classroom in decades.
“They walk in here bravely, of their own volition, and many of them are worried and scared,” McCafferty said. “They’ve been out of school for awhile and they don’t know what to expect and the scariest part is walking through the door.
“Once they get here, especially if they have a goal beyond the GED, they see the value. I admire the fact that they’re disciplined enough to come in on their own. It’s a pleasure to work with students who want to be here and I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t hear a ‘thank you’ in appreciation for the help they’ve received.”