RALEIGH — Jeffrey Johnson is one math test away from earning his high school equivalency – an essential step toward his dream of owning a barber shop.
In October, Johnson will take the fifth part of the GED test. He’s already passed the other four.
He’ll be sweating bullets. If he doesn’t finish the GED by the end of the year, his scores will expire, and he’ll have to start over.
A new computer-based GED will launch nationally in January. It will be administered in four parts instead of five and will be based on the new, more rigorous Common Core education standards adopted by most states, including North Carolina. The new test will also be more expensive, costing $120 for the series compared to $35 now.
Johnson, 26, of Wendell, is doing everything he can to avoid the new version. Since June, he’s been in GED prep classes at Wake Tech Community College and knocking off the tests one by one.
Like many of his classmates, he saved math until last. Now a part-time cook at Sonic restaurant, Johnson previously held jobs in customer service for mobile phone companies. He dropped out of a New Jersey high school in his senior year when he was only months away from graduation.
“If I had a rewind button, I would have pushed it already,” he said of that decision.
Johnson is feeling more confident every day. Earlier this week, he practiced geometry with a Wake Tech professor nearby to answer questions. He hopes to enter an associate degree program for business in January, once he completes his GED. “It will mean a lot to me,” he said. “I’ll be very proud of myself.”
Outside his classroom at Wake Tech’s Adult Education Center, a mirror in the hallway has a label taped under it: “Future GED graduate.” Above, a sign says, “125 GED graduates and counting.”
Community colleges across the state have encouraged students to finish the GED before the change in 2014.
In 2012-13, Wake Tech graduated 1,019 students in the GED program, a 20 percent increase over the previous year, said Monica Gemperlein, dean of college and career readiness at Wake Tech.
The new test will be administered on computers and will include more writing in the form of longer responses and a compare-and-contrast essay. Students will have to be familiar with content in the subject areas because the test has less reading for information.
Gemperlein said even faculty have been surprised at the changes in the test based on sample questions. Most new test takers wouldn’t have experience with the Common Core, which promotes critical thinking and problem solving in reading and math.
“A lot of people may have (dropped) out of school 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago so they would not have been exposed to that,” she said. “Also, if you’re in your 30s, the likelihood that you worked on a computer on a regular basis while you were in school or have a lot of familiarity with technology is an assumption that may or may not be true.”
The new $120 test may be cost prohibitive to some students, who will be charged a $30 fee if they fail one part and have to take a retest.
Still, Wake Tech officials say they don’t want to discourage students from taking the new test if they can’t achieve a GED this year. And the new test does have advantages, including easier scheduling and immediate results.
Many people are held back from better jobs because they don’t have a high school diploma. The GED Testing Service estimates that there are 1.3 million people in North Carolina who dropped out of high school, nearly 16 percent of the population.
Randy Trask, president of the GED Testing Service, called the education gap a national crisis, with 4 million jobs unfilled because of the lack of skilled workers.
40 million adults lack diploma
“Most of these jobs require some college or training beyond high school,” Trask said in a recent conference call with reporters. “Meanwhile, there are 40 million adults without a high school diploma – 40 million American adults. That’s an alarming number. These adults lack the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in today’s job market.”
Trask said the new program will live up to today’s technology standards and employer expectations. Providing a respected high school credential, he said, will give adults “a fighting chance” in a more complex economy.
Erica Speller, 39, of Wendell, wants to shift from food service jobs to a career in medical office management.
She lacks only the math test before earning her GED. Then it’s on to a degree from Wake Tech, she said.
When Speller dropped out of high school, she had no problem getting a job. She worked at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J., sometimes earning $500 a night in tips.
“It was ridiculous easy money,” she said.
Not having a high school diploma has never held her back. She is raising two children and has moved up to supervisory roles in corporate dining and food service.
But expectations are higher for job credentials and, now, for the GED, too.
“It’s changing, just like with everything else,” Speller said. “Just like with the school system. It’s do or die. It’s going to be a lot harder for people.”