In the past three years, the department has added six new testing centers, including three in the city. And in the last year, it has increased the number of tests offered each month by 12 percent. The current wait time for the GED test application process also has been reduced, Tyler said, to one to three months.

Maryland is also about to join dozens of other states in providing computer-based testing, which officials said will allow the department to offer more tests and get results back more quickly. This winter, it will do a limited launch of computer-based testing at the center located in its headquarters.

The cost of the computerized program is $120, according to Nicole Chestang, executive vice president of the GED Testing Service, which owns the test. She said that the new method was designed to help Maryland and other states offer greater access to the tests.

The state has absorbed most of the cost of the paper-based test in the past, only charging testers $45 to contribute to administrative costs for a test that costs more than $200 apiece to administer.

Under the new structure, testers would pay $120 directly to GED Testing Service and a $30 administrative fee to the state.

"Maryland has done everything that it can to keep costs down, but they have more demand than they have seats that they can fill," Chestang said, adding that state and local governments should also bear the responsibility to invest in GED programs. "We all have to make some decisions about how we can help support that."

The state is currently coming up with a plan to help mitigate that fee burden, Tyler said.

The recent efforts have been welcomed by city institutions that have advocated for their students by seeking increased support for the labor department.

Sonia Socha, executive director of the South Baltimore Learning Center who served on the workgroup that examined the transfer of GED services for the labor department, said that at the time the state promised increased funding for the department's new role.

"That never happened," said Socha, who will also speak at the Thursday hearing.

"What we never really talked about was the GED office and how the move might be impacted there," Socha added. "Or whether or not that particular part of the department would receive more money, which they really should have."

Students at the South Baltimore Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that has for two decades helped thousands of city residents obtain diplomas and GED certificates, also experienced months-long delays under the new transfer. She said it was hard for students, who would sometimes lose some of the skills they'd spent months studying while waiting for tests to be scheduled.

Socha said 90 students obtained diplomas this year compared to 73 last year. She said she anticipates that number will continue to rise not just at the center, but at all adult literacy institutions in 2014 as more students opt to obtain their diplomas through GED programs.

"It's a very complex problem, and the transition only made it more difficult to serve the capacity that we have," Socha said. "For so many people, this is the entry into everything else, and I just don't think the state is ready for it."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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