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New GED Chief Faces Sagging Testing Rates Despite High Minority Dropout Numbers

New GED Chief Faces Sagging Testing Rates Despite High Minority Dropout Numbers

By David Pluviose

Widely recognized as the equivalent to a high school diploma, the General Educational Development test, or GED, is as critical as ever for high school dropouts, particularly minorities. A recent Education Week study finds that 55 percent of all Hispanic and 50 percent of all Black and American Indian students will drop out of U.S. high schools this year, while only 23 percent of White students are expected to drop out. As the nation’s Hispanic population continues to swell, the GED is expected to play an increasing role in access to college or the work force for these and other minorities.

Although many education advocates argue that the GED is needed now more than ever, only 665,927 U.S. students took the test in 2004, according to the GED Testing Service’s most recent statistics. The annual number had hovered around the 800,000 mark prior to 2002, when the test was revamped to address complaints by employers that GED-holders still lacked basic writing skills. The numbers have not rebounded since a 43 percent drop in the number of test-takers immediately followed the introduction of the more rigorous test. Officials are starting to work now on another redesign for 2011.

Newly minted GED Testing Service Executive Director Sylvia E. Robinson has her work cut out for her. She is faced with the challenge of keeping the bar set high enough for GED-holders to compete in a rapidly changing economy while ensuring that every student who needs to take the GED has the opportunity to do so. She recently sat down with Diverse to talk about her background and her plans for the GED.

DI: How has your professional background prepared you for this position?

SR: I’m a first-generation college student from the Boston area; I finished high school in 1966. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. I know that many people worked very hard and sacrificed very much to make educational opportunities like Stanford available for students like myself. My first significant opportunity [was] a position at Wellesley College as a career counselor. I was in the career center for five years, and then I was dean of the class of 1986. So that was my real foundation in higher education.

When this opportunity [at the American Council on Education] to head the GED Testing Service came up, I really felt that this was an important step. It was a real connection to that commitment to do something that can make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged students or those who haven’t successfully completed the traditional high school diploma. And it was something I really thought was a national challenge and one that I wanted to pursue.

DI: How has the experience of having your own child take the GED helped you in this position?

SR: I have four children, and my second daughter took and passed the GED in 1990. It certainly gave me a fuller appreciation of the challenges some students face who don’t find success in the traditional high school path. She’s now in her last year of the nursing program at Northern Virginia Community College, and has been inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, which is the honor society for community colleges. So I’m very pleased that she’s had such success. The GED provided her a second chance.

DI: What partnerships does the GED Testing Service have with high schools?

SR: We have contracts with all 50 states, and all the provinces in Canada. The actual test administration takes place on the local level. With a number of states, we have a partnership program that allows students who are in the 10th and 11th grades and having difficulty with the traditional high school track to move into a GED Options Program where they can do the test preparation and successfully, we hope, pass the GED. So those are programs that are currently operating at the high school level. Many of our test centers are located in community colleges and community centers and other local, community-based sites where adult educational opportunities are offered.

DI: How important is the GED in terms of giving minorities a foundation to succeed? 

SR: I think it is essential. I think it is fundamental. There are many prominent people like Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Surgeon General Richard Carmona — they are all GED graduates. In our society, higher educational opportunity is essential to success, and it is even more so for minorities. It is a critical tool, and we want to do all we can to market the GED to low-income communities, to African-Americans, to Hispanics, to immigrants in this country.

DI: What specific plans do you have to boost the number of GED test-takers?

SR: I have goals and a vision that we certainly want to do more marketing and outreach in minority communities. We just hired a program manager for diversity initiatives and we are embarking on a strategic planning process. We are really focused for this fall on developing a strategic plan, and diversity initiatives, outreach and marketing are critical. Right now, I will say there is the passion, there is the commitment. We will do more outreach and my goal is to be able to say, ‘Yes we have and will increase the number of test-takers.’

DI: What is the process by which new GED test series are developed?

SR: Because education evolves over time, we want to make sure that the test is a current and accurate measure of high school education as the world and standards change. I think we have to work hard to ensure the integrity of the test, but I think we also have to do a better job marketing the test and doing outreach and really getting the message out to those who are most in need of the value of the GED. A second chance message is going to be very important. We are going to do a lot more proactive marketing to get the word out in advance of the 2011 test series so we can hopefully increase or at least stabilize that base.

DI: Moving forward, how do you see the future of the GED?

SR: I would really like the GED to be a fundamental tool for any student who is not having success or hasn’t had success in the traditional high school path. I would very much want the GED to be a resource for minority and disadvantaged students. That’s a personal commitment and a personal passion of mine. I want to reach out to the states and make sure that there are initiatives and efforts at the local level to support these students. I want to get some celebrity spokespersons. We are looking at ways to do a proactive marketing and media campaign to get some of those individuals, because certainly their lives have been changed by taking the GED. We want to focus more on success stories, and my daughter is an example. It’s wonderful to realize that the GED provides a second chance opportunity for that kind of closure for so many individuals. It’s something that keeps me motivated and energizes me for this work.

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