Is the new GED too hard?

The GED exam will be harder in 2014, reports the Bay Area News Group. Maybe too hard. The new four-part test, which will be taken on computers, is aligned with Common Core’s college and career readiness expectations.

The new exams are designed to better prepare students for vocational training, college or careers by testing the skills employers are looking for now, said Armando Diaz, spokesman for the GED Testing Service.

There will be fewer multiple choice questions and more questions that “require test-takers to read longer passages and show understanding by defending opinions in short answers or essays.”

I wonder if the new test is too difficult. Here’s a sample social studies question for the 2014 exam:

Excerpt: “There would be an end to everything, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.”

Based on the excerpt, which important principle held by America’s founders did Montesquieu help shape?

A. Wider participation in government is essential to democracy.
B. Government will fail unless it performs a variety of functions.
C. Divisions of powers within government are necessary to prevent abuses.
D. Government power should be shared among the different classes of society.

(Option C is correct. The excerpt states the belief that concentrating all governmental power in one person or group would be very detrimental to a society.)

Go here for more on the new exam.

Only 12 percent of GED recipients go on to earn any other credential, GED officials say. They want the GED to be rigorous enough to be the first step to a vocational credential and a decent job. But it’s going to be a high step.

It’s possible to be stumped by Montesquieu but capable of  learning how to weld, cut hair or drive a truck. The GED is most useful as a minimum qualifications, not as an indicator of college readiness. If it’s too hard, a lot of people will give up.

About Joanne


  1. We need to return to a clear difference between college preparation and vocational preparation. Mixing the two serves neither group well.

  2. GoogleMaster says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and surmise that for many test-takers, that particular formatting of the subjunctive will completely throw them for a loop. Many of them will be unable to parse the sentence at all.

    It’s not a social studies problem; it’s a problem of grammar knowledge and/or reading ability.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Too hard for what?

  4. The GED Test has a Social Studies test as part of the four-test battery.

    What would you have the social studies test assess? What would that ever have to do with welding, cutting hair or driving a truck?

    It seems that you simply do not think that the GED Test should include social studies content, as social studies content is the least likely to be relevant to welding, cutting hair, driving a truck or other such work.

    That is, it’s the difficulty that you are arguing with, but rather the domain.

    • There’s a difference between testing social studies with questions like ‘What are the 3 branches of government’ or ‘Why do we have 3 branches of government? or ‘What is meant by a system of checks and balances?’ and asking students to figure out that quote. One of the hardest things in designing test questions is figuring out what you’re trying to test and then writing questions that test that specific thing.

      • Amen.

      • That question is the application of CCSS reading skills in a social studies context with a high school level text.

        Past GED social studies tests have used passages that were far below high school reading levels, did not require social studies knowledge to answer, and did not call for high school level reading skills.

        Do you really think that your example questions (at different levels) are more relevant to driving a truck, welding or cutting hair? Because the only basis Joanne has offered for rejecting the sample question above is that it is not relevant to those jobs.

        • I think that my questions test a knowledge of basic civics/social studies without keeping people who are otherwise capable of holding various jobs from earning the GED required to obtain those jobs. In other words, it ensures that they have learned the civics required to be a good citizen so that they can earn the GED that says that they have the basic knowledge required of high school graduates so that they can go on to be productive citizens. Whether or not we should require high school equivalency is another question, but I think that most commenters here would not argue that you need to have mastered a college prep curriculum to be a productive citizen.

          • 1) Are you interested in their being a productive citizen (i.e., contributing to the economy) or in being an informed citizen (i.e., contributing to the politic discussion and decision-making)? Those are two different goals. They may both be pursued, of course. But preparing students for one is not the same as preparing students for the other.

            2) Do you think that something less than a schoolhouse rock level (5th grade?) understanding of how our political systems and our governing principles is adequate?

            3) Do you think that the question demands more of than a high school level of reading skills?

            4) Do you think someone can be an informed citizen (see my inadequate definition above) without being able to read at a high school level?

          • It won’t let me reply directly to you, ceolaf, but I’ll summarize my thoughts on your points here. In a perfect world, people would contribute both economically and to decision making. They would understand history, logic, and current scientific and political events at an advanced level. However, there is a wide difference both in ability and in curiosity. My spouse and I both have STEM PhDs, but there are areas that we don’t have a lot of interest in and are not as well informed about as we could be.

            I grew up knowing both people who went on to earn advanced/professional degrees and people who were lucky to graduate from high school. For whatever reason, we have decided that a GED is required for almost any type of job. Consigning all of the ‘lucky to graduate but certainly competent to hold a job and actually well informed about specific subsets of information’ types to a life of unemployment because they don’t wish to understand the world around them at the same level that we do seems both punitive and actually harmful to the rest of us, who, in the absence of employment, will be supporting them.

            This is an issue that I care a lot about, having gone to school in parts of Appalachia where I met some wonderful people who had little interest in academics. I also realize that, despite my PhD, I have a father who remembers plowing with a mule (he is now a successful businessman). Before we design something that will prohibit people from getting jobs, we have to consider what we can reasonably expect everybody to understand and be able to do. I don’t claim to have answers to this, but it’s not a simple question.

    • So, as you are focused on the GED credential as a prerequisite for jobs, wouldn’t that imply that having ANY social studies test as part of the GED Test is a mistake?

      What is the reasoning or rationale for including a social studies that doesn’t indicate that it should be high school knowledge/understanding? Why bother including elementary school level knowledge/understanding, if that’s where you think it should top out.

      These are specific questions. Critics of the social studies test should be able to answer them. Otherwise, step back so people who have actually done the hard work of thinking about these issues and coming to answers can continue to try improve meaningful out comes for students.

      • I’m focused on the GED as a job prerequisite because that seems to be one of the primary reasons that people try to get a GED. I think the implication that we either test ‘college prep’ material or else, well, why bother is a false one. I’ve taught community college students, and I now teach homeschooled high school students. I would say that my A students, and probably my B students, could answer that question. My C students, who will likely go on to live productive lives, probably could not.

        I frequently tell my students that I don’t teach the material because I expect them to remember every detail (this is not true for my pre-professional college students, who do need to remember details). An A or a B indicates that they understand the material, can remember it, and can apply it. It is not particularly easy to earn an A. The grade of C, on the other hand, indicates familiarity with the material and some ability to apply it. I would argue that the GED should be more equivalent to what an average C student can do, and not what a college prep student can do. This isn’t an issue that I can just ‘step back’ from…how tests are designed and which students should take which test is part of my teaching job (although I’m usually advising about SAT subject tests or AP tests). I am also not criticizing the social studies test. I am just asking what we want it to test, and if we are comfortable with the likely outcome of what it will be testing. Although I personally don’t understand the ‘do the minimum to get through high school, get a job, and never open a book or magazine again’ mentality, I know that it is there and that if the bar is set too high AND we continue to require a GED for a job, there could be problems. I am not a fan of having ‘low expectations’, but I also spent time tutoring friends in high school and I know that everybody is not capable of college prep material.

  5. Let me be a bit more blunt: This is ridiculously stupid objection to the changes being made to the GED Test, at a time when there are plenty of valid (and plenty of invalid) objections to be be made.

    More than 40 states in this country have signed on to grade by grade standards for K12 education — standards that are clearly meant to apply in Social Studies and Science, in addition to ELA and Math.

    Our democratic processes have given up leaders who have decided to raise the bar in K12, which means that high school bar is increasing.

    As the GED credential is so widely considered a “high school equivalency” credential, the dominance of Common Core more-or-less has cornered the GED folks into raising the bar for their program.

    So, perhaps you object to Common Core as too high a bar for high school credentials? Or, perhaps you think that high school graduates should not require social studies knowledge and skills. Or, perhaps you think that the GED Test should be separated from his original, historical and consistent role as a high school equivalency test.

    If not any of those, then your objection makes no sense whatsoever.

    Or, perhaps you see a need for a credential that is lower in status/difficulty than a high school credential, and want GED to to fill that role — despite it’s consistent efforts to match the cognitive skills of high school completion.

    This is a complex issue. There’s a lot going on here.

    But saying that the new GED Test might be too hard because of that item and its irrelevance to trucking driving, welding and cutting hair? That’s patently ridiculous.

    • Roger Sweeny says:


      The fact that 40 states have “signed on” to the Common Core does not mean they will actually implement it. If it is substantially harder than what they do now, I guarantee they will not implement it.

      Some will explicitly “unsign” but I suspect most will assess their students’ knowledge with easy tests–and set a low score for “proficient.”

      • We’ve seen a lot of states dump off the consortia bandwagon(s). But we’ve not seen them leave common core.

        I agree — and have written publicly — that the truth of the matter will come in the implementation. No question. But do you really think that the skill level needed to answer THAT item is higher than high school?

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          No one would talk or write that way today. So I think the question would be very difficult for the majority of high school students today. Some are going to be thrown just by how old it seems. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Maybe this means I’m a bad person but I got a good feeling when two days after this, Joanne posted, “Common tests lose support.” Lots of states now have standards written down that are all the same. But if the tests are different (and teachers teach to the test), different things will be taught. And if the tests are easy and the cut scores low, there is reason to believe that many of those written standards will never make it into students’ heads.

        Or maybe I’m just a cynical old bastard who’s been disappointed too often and has come to expect it.

  6. cranberry says:

    I would hope people who pass the GED might start their own businesses one day, or own a house. They should be able to read contracts, for business or private life. In my opinion, if you can’t make sense of the example, you’ll be a sitting duck for many credit card offers. “College and career ready” should mean you can parse written sentences.

    • Ze'ev Wurman says:

      Here is possibly the root of the problem: the belief that HS graduates should be “college and career ready.”

      This has never been true until now. HS graduation did NOT mean you were college ready. The “career” in the Common Core “readiness” is a masquerade and a lie — most careers do not need the same preparation as college does.

      Consequently, we now pretend to expect that 100% of HS students will be college ready. Well, they can’t all be. So we either hike the GED, or lower college admission, or both. The last choice is what is actually happening.

  7. That sentence should not pose a problem, but I’m betting that it does. Grammar and composition have not been taught and textbooks have nowhere near the vocab and sentence complexity they had in the past. A relative’s HS college-prep (non-honors) freshmen, in an affluent suburb, were frequently unable to identify the subject of a simple sentence with only one/noun pronoun. Grammar instruction, like instruction in composition, math, science, history, geography, government and the arts, needs to start immediately upon school entry; it really does take that long for most kids to learn the background necessary for good citizenship and a productive life. ES curriculum and instruction need a HUGE overhaul – and so do grading practices. Failure should be an option.

    • Momof4,

      Don’t ever run for a school board seat, you have way
      too much common sense for that.

      Unfortunately, fads in education have resulted in the
      wholesale dumbing down of standards in the last
      quarter century in the United States.

      If a college prep freshman could NOT figure out what
      the subject is in a sentence (aka subject-verb agreement), I’d say the problem started LONG before
      that kid got to 9th grade.


      • Of course, it did; in kindergarten. From the very beginning of school, kids should be explicitly taught the construction of a sentence and given time to practice; it used to start with copy work and dictation. Now, teaching grammar is explicitly forbidden. Thank Lucy Calkin’s Readers’/Writers’ Workshop, where the mantra is “Grammar should be caught, not taught.” Of course, it isn’t caught; it is the rare kid than can learn it that way. It requires voracious consumption of high-quality fiction and non-fiction, including academic prose, and such kids are almost extinct. In addition, expository writing is not taught; it is all journaling and story-writing. Back in the day, keeping a diary and writing stories were things done outside of school, with rare exceptions.

        • Lucy Calkin’s work may have its faults, but your accusations are exaggerated. In fact, Writer’s Workshop requires that grammar and mechanics be taught during daily mini-lessons. You could argue that this is not enough time for this topic, but it is simply not true that she opposes the teaching of grammar. It is also not the case that expository writing is not taught in the schools. Lucy Calkin’s has always included instruction in expository writing for children beginning in kindergarten. Her most recent books recommend that about half of the student’s writing be expository. In addition, since the introduction of the NCLB tests, many schools emphasize expository writing so that their students will pass the state writing tests. I am not particularly a fan of Lucy Calkins, but there’s no point in making things up.

  8. I’ll bet if you gave this GED test to many college bound hs seniors, the passing number would be equally as shocking.

    • Given that 30 to 40 percent of all incoming freshmen
      at four year colleges/universities need remediation,
      and upwards of 80 percent at most community colleges,
      it would not shock me at all.

      It should shock admissions staff and the parents of
      these so called ‘college freshmen’, though.


      • That’s only the bad news that’s made it into relative publicity. I’ve read many complaints, from university profs at competitive colleges, that their students are unable to read and understand their textbooks, so they’re constantly pushing profs to hand out study notes (apparently they can’t take their own notes, either). I’ve even read the same complaints from law and med school profs. Not only have the texts been seriously dumbed down in k-12,both in vocab and in sentence length/complexity but they’ve eliminated typical academic language. There’s a section in Charles Murray’s Real Education, wherein he quotes a 100-word passage from page 400 of commonly-used freshman college texts in history, art, econ, psych, philosophy and literature – and I’m betting that many, if not most, freshmen are unable to understand them. Of course, Murray’s of the opinion that far too many kids are going to college, because far too many lack sufficient cognitive ability, academic preparation and/or motivation. I’d agree with him that those unable to read typical freshman survey-course texts really don’t belong there.

    • The GED folks have made clear for years that they figure out the passing score for their test by having thousands of recent high school graduates take the test and setting the cut score at the 40th percentile.

      Of course, this is an entirely no-stakes situation for that norming group, unlike the very high stakes situation of actual GED test takers. So, that 40th percentile is clearly far far below the capabilities of the average high school graduate.

      Therefore, there is really no reason to think that the pass rate for the new GED Social Studies Test when taken by high school seniors would be shockingly low. In a no-stakes situation, it would be 60%, by design. And in a high stakes situation, it would be much much higher.

  9. “Energy Pyramid”?
    “Character Web”?

    And what about that essay question asking kids to evaluate arguments for and against DST, and take a position?

    • What about them?

      Those are questions on the Science and Reasoning Through Language Arts tests, right?