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GED test takers face obstacles

Hundreds of Baltimore students and residents have had their high school completions hanging in limbo since the state transferred the General Education Development responsibilities to a new department, according to city and adult education officials.

As a consequence, a program that was designed to fast-track a high school diploma for teens and adults is in some cases preventing them from having access to jobs and college enrollment, officials and students say.

On Thursday, the City Council will hold a hearing to discuss the issues that city GED seekers have faced, such as an increase in wait times, since the service was moved from the state education department to the labor department in 2009. A resolution introduced by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke last month outlined the challenges under the transition, some of which officials attribute to the labor department not being adequately funded.

"I've been worrying about all of this since the transfer occurred," Clarke said. The labor department "got stuck with this without the resources, and that's not fair to them or the hundreds of people in this city who need it."

Amanda McCarty is one of the students who has been affected. She applied to take her GED test in January of last year, but she had already started fall college courses before she received word she was a high school graduate.

"I was anxious and nervous because you think, it could be today or tomorrow," said McCarty, who is attending the Community College of Baltimore County, which allows students to take an entrance exam to begin classes.

"You work your butt off for three years, you get ready — and then you wait," said McCarty, who completed high school at the Community School in Remington, an alternative program where students 15 to 18 years old take intensive courses for at least two years to obtain their high school diploma through the GED program.

"People could turn in an application, and it would be weeks before it was even opened, months before they knew when they were taking the test," said Tom Culotta, who founded the Community School, a one-room, 600-square-foot school that has helped more than 1,000 students obtain their high school diplomas in the past 30 years.

Culotta said the GED program "has remained rather static, as opposed to being innovative, and since the transition has become more difficult for folks to manage. It has improved, but in a city with higher unemployment and poverty, we have a system that needs real attention."

While improvements have been noted in the past year, some city officials worry whether the department will be able to manage a potentially stark uptick of students seeking alternative routes to diplomas.

A new law requiring students to attend school until age 18 takes effect in 2014, and a potential fee increase for test-takers could triple this year to $150.

"There are many immediate concerns, and a hike like that, at least in my district, is going to be a real problem," said Clarke, who chairs the council's education committee and serves on the board of the Community School. "GED is what there is if you don't stay in school, and it's supposed to be a fast-track. We have a city full of people who need this, and with this new law, there will be more. And we need more capacity now and in the future."

Last year, the labor department administered the GED test to 1,089 candidates in Baltimore City, and 417 passed.

In the Thursday hearing planned on the resolution, city, state and adult literacy officials will seek more information on a new program being developed by the state to accommodate the 2014 mandate, and to discuss efforts to mitigate rising costs for testing fees, which could triple from $45 to $150.

The transfer of GED services to the state labor department from the education department was part of a plan to align adult literacy with workforce development.

Officials at the state labor department said that in the first couple of years after the July 2009 transfer, it faced financial barriers that resulted in longer wait times, limited number of test sites, and an inability to meet compensation standards for testing staff.

The department's takeover also coincided with an economic climate that increased the demand for GEDs, said Patricia Tyler, deputy assistant secretary for adult learning. The number of GED diplomas the department has awarded rose from 4,677 in fiscal 2011 to 5,119 in fiscal 2012.

"As unemployment skyrocketed, and people realized they couldn't enter the workforce without a high school diploma, so did our demand," Tyler said. "That's all reversing now, and we're better than ever at this point."

Tyler said that the department's ability to deliver services has significantly improved, and there are several efforts in the pipeline that will enable it to serve city and state residents more efficiently.

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

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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