It took Althea more than 30 years to build up the courage to try to earn her high school diploma. Now, after a year of studying, she thinks it might be too late. She took the General Education Development (GED) test in November but found out in January that she didn't pass.
The GED was the test that students who hadn't graduated from high school had to pass to move on to college or some careers. But it was phased out in New York at the end of December and replaced with the more challenging Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC). The new test is intended to "raise educational achievement for all students," according to the New York State Education Department.
Students like Althea, 51, are worried they may not be able to pass the more rigorous test. "I understand that they want to challenge you and make you work harder, but it's not feasible if you don't speak good English or [if you] have a disability," says Althea hasn't told her friends or bosses that she lacks a high school diploma and is taking a remediation class.
In December, an estimated 15,000 students rushed to take the GED before it was phased out, three times as many as the year before.
Some adult-education teachers are saying the TASC is being rolled out poorly, that they don't have time to prepare properly and that students may get frustrated and drop out. Some have even gone to Albany to advocate for the money they believe is necessary to make the transition more successful. But they are worried that all the political attention on pre-K has overshadowed the historic change under way for adults-learners.
Althea attends classes at the Adult Learning Center at Lehman College in the Bronx, where students and educators alike say they are stuck in a state of limbo. With less than a month until the new Common Core-aligned TASC test will be widely administered, teachers there haven't adapted their instruction because said they haven't seen a full version of the new test.
Teachers debate: Breadth vs. depth
The new TASC still has the same five sections as the old GED—reading, writing, math, science and social studies—but it will cover more advanced material and require more sophisticated answers. This aligns the test with the tougher Common Core standards.
The writing section will be more analytical and will include more non-fiction, says Jaye Jones, the director of the program at Lehman.
"The old writing test was more of a personal essay. They could really write from their own experience," says Paul Wasserman, who has been teaching GED prep at Lehman since 1991. He says the new essay requires a level of analysis that is harder than the writing expected of freshmen entering college.
Wasserman has started to prepare for these changes. He's begun having students summarize two related texts rather than just one, but hasn't yet asked them to do the more complicated task of analyzing them both.
The TASC test is supposed to gradually add new material and become more difficult, but just how gradually it will evolve isn't clear. Wasserman says he just ordered the first test preparation book that McGraw-Hill released in February.
"The old test was mostly a reading comprehension test," Wasserman says. "Students didn't have to have a lot of factual knowledge."
Wasserman has already started experimenting with ways to help his students memorize and retain more information. But this isn't a part of Lehman's current approach to teaching . "We've been teaching the idea that students should be studying something more in-depth over a period of time, rather than a scattershot American history in 10 weeks," Wasserman says.
The educators in the program worry that the greater emphasis on test preparation will come at the expense of developing their students' passion and love of learning. The new test may be unrealistic given the limited classroom time, says Mike Dooley, 67, who has taught in the program for 12 years.
"People are trying to make up for not having gone to high school by going three days a week for nine hours total. So the time doesn't really jibe," Dooley says.
Mark Trushkowsky, who trains math teachers at CUNY's 11 centers that teach the TASC, said he continues to instruct teachers to teach deeply even if it means not being able to cover all the material. The reason is that, in addition to requiring students to know more content, the test will ask harder questions.
For example, the GED might have asked how to find the area of a rectangle. In contrast, the TASC might ask how, given a certain amount of fencing material, a farmer could maximize the size of his rectangular garden, says Trushkowsky.
The only way he thinks students will be able to answer these more difficult questions is if teachers spend time going deeply into their subject matter.
"I want to make sure this test doesn't make classes become test-preppy. That didn't work for these students the first time," Trushkowsky says. "We're a second chance for these people and we all feel that responsibility."
Worries about discouragement
Jones, the program director for adult learning at Lehman, says she isn't sure how many students they will send to the first TASC test in March because she doesn't know who will be ready.
"I've spoken with students who feel very discouraged," Jones says. Teachers are now paying closer attention to the emotional cues students are giving off in class, she says, so they won't give up.
Even with all the challenges, Trushkowsky said that he expects the same percentage of students to pass the TASC as in the past, because the passing score is determined by how well current high school students can do on the test. The TASC would only become more difficult to pass if current high school students started to master the Common Core, which he doesn't think has happened yet.
Most of the students in a recent night class at Lehman said they didn't know much about the new test, or heard it was harder than before. Jenny Mendez, 28, tried twice to study for the old GED. But each time personal problems got in the way and she dropped out. Like most students there, she said she was most worried about the new math section.
The uncertainty isn't just affecting students. "I feel demoralized as a teacher," Bernie Connaughton, 59, who has been teaching adults for more than 20 years, wrote in an email.
"In general, people are freaked out, angry, worried and puzzled about how to proceed," Wasserman wrote in a recent email, as rumors have started to circulate among adult educators in New York about the first students who took the TASC in February.
"There are people who were close to retiring that decided this would be a good time to do it," Trushkowsky says.
Alexander Hoffman, a researcher at Columbia University, says one of the reasons teachers are feeling anxiety is because this is the first time in recent memory that the adult education community has been affected by education reform. Recent reforms like No Child Left Behind didn't affect the adult learning community.
"An enormous part of the stress is that there is something new coming and they think that their students are going to be victims," says Hoffman. "Whether they are right or wrong, they care passionately."
But Hoffman says the new test might be a more accurate reflection of what it takes to succeed in college and careers than the old test. "The old GED has not been rigorous enough and has not been meaningful enough," Hoffman adds.
The transition to the new test has been rocky at adult education centers outside CUNY as well. Josh Willis, director of the Education Center at the non-profit Turning Point, says the new TASC preparation book released by McGraw-Hill seems to confirm that they will have to teach more subject matter in science and social studies.
"It goes straight from the Declaration of Independence to the Tonkin Resolution. It feels very scattershot," says Willis. "If they're expected to learn all of the knowledge kids are supposed to learn in high school, it's tough to put that in a 200- or even 300-page book."
Now that the Board of Regents in New York has delayed full implementation of the Common Core in public schools until 2022, Willis says adult education centers will have to take the lead in learning all this new material.
"It's hard to lead the charge when you're underfunded," notes Willis.
The current cost of educating an adult in New York State is about $1,200 per year, compared with more than $19,000 for students enrolled full-time in public school. The Board of Regents recommended further increasing education funding in the state by $1.3 billion this year for pre-K – 12 districts, in part to help schools train their teachers to adapt to the Common Core standards.
Kevin Douglas, 30, who advocates for adult literacy as part of his job with United Neighborhood Houses, believes adult-learning centers can meet the new standards over the next three years.
"If the dollars are there, yes, they can do it," Douglas says. "The concern is, how do we bring people from where they are now to where they need to be without any more resources in the system?"
Douglas and other advocates met with a representative of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders from the state legislature on Feb. 26 to advocate for $20 million of additional resources to help programs like the one at Lehman adapt to the new test. While Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, chair of the committee on education, has been a strong supporter in the Assembly, Douglas says her Senate conterparts have been less vocal.
"It's one thing to support adult education in words and it's another to put the dollars forward to make it successful," Douglas says.
Several advocates like Douglas from the New York Coalition for Adult Literacy, which is leading the push for more funding, says the state's push into pre-K would be more likely to succeed with more investment in adult education.
"If the parents of those children don't have language skills or have bad numeracy skills, the benefit of pre-K will trail off by the time they get to third grade," says Ira Yankwitt, 47, another member of the Coalition for Adult Literacy.
Keeping heads above water
Trushkowsky, the math coordinator at CUNY, says the obstacles many TASC students face are daunting. He compares it to his recent attempt to learn how to swim.
During his second class he began to struggle. His resolve wavered before his third and he thought, "Maybe I should just go home."
This lead to an epiphany—this is how his students felt. "I was very aware in that moment that I don't do that in my life. I don't have a tri-weekly date with something that is a huge challenge for me," he says.
Diagnosed with dyslexia a few years ago, Althea continues to attend classes regularly. She feels less ashamed of past failures now that she's learned about dyslexia.
"It wasn't a problem I created," she says. "I was born with it. I came back to school because I learned my struggle wasn't something that I was doing wrong."
But she never told her bosses, coworkers or even her family that she didn't have a high school diploma. She has been attending classes in secret.
"It's not only to keep the job that I have," Althea says. "It's for me. It's a personal goal I'm trying to achieve."
Correction: The original version of this article was altered to correct the reference to the meeting with the governor's office and the spelling of Rep. Nolan's name.