Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

After 70 years as a nonprofit, GED test switching to for-profit venture

Donald Desmond teaches Abdesa Bustina to use a computer at the New Haven Adult and Continuing Education Center. The new GED will be offered only on computer.
Donald Desmond teaches Abdesa Bustina to use a computer at the New Haven Adult and Continuing Education Center. The new GED will be offered only on computer.
Diane Orson/WNPR

Listen to

Download this 2MB

For more than 70 years, a nonprofit organization — the  American Council on Education — has administered the GED tests to high school dropouts who want to go on to college or just get a job that requires a high school diploma.

But in January, the General Educational Development test is going for-profit, part of a trend of privatization in education.

The group has partnered with Pearson — considered the largest for-profit education business in the world — to form the new GED Testing Service, a for-profit company to run the test.

The Council’s leadership said the partnership came because they wanted to revamp the test because they felt the GED wasn’t adequately preparing test takers for the job market. 

“For this program to remain relevant — to really have an impact on economic development and, a bottom line, to really give adult learners a chance at earning a sustainable living wage — we had to not just measure high school equivalency," said CT Turner, a spokesperson for the GED Testing Service. "We also needed to give feedback, and we need to measure people’s readiness for these college and career training programs that the majority have to go on to after a GED.”

Accomplishing that required a lot of money and expertise they didn’t have. Turner said the council approached nonprofit testing companies, but none was interested.

There have always been for-profit companies involved in educating kids: textbook publishers, for instance. But experts said the trend is growing.

“We’ve heard about outsourcing in the manufacturing world. Well, there’s a lot of outsourcing going on within education institutions, too," said Guilbert Hentschke, a professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. "It’s not new. It’s part of bigger things going on.”

Hentschke said 30 percent of the world’s education industry is run by private organizations. They can provide an injection of capital and some services that nonprofits don’t have. He points to his own university, which uses a paid service called Blackboard to manage class materials online.

“We would be dead trying to do our own learning management system without using Blackboard. And Blackboard’s for profit,” Hentschke said.

In 2012, London-based Pearson — a enormous company that also owns the Financial Times, Prentice Hall and half of Penguin Random House — reported a nearly $1 billion profit from its education business in North America alone.

Hentschke said it’s hard to know how much profit the GED can add to that bottom line.

“I’m sure they would like to have it make money. How much it will make is not totally clear to me. The natural market is there,” Hentschke said.

But it’s not a captive market. Many states have objected to the new test because the price has gone up, and they don’t have a lot of time to prepare. The new test will be administered in January. Students who have been working on the old one are scrambling to take it before the switch.

New York, Montana and New Hampshire have dropped the GED and gone with new equivalency tests. Montana and New Hampshire went with one from a nonprofit company. New York hired CTB McGraw-Hill, a for-profit company.

About a dozen states are weighing whether to switch to other tests.

In California, the GED is the only option right now: It’s written into state law.

Diane Hernandez, the state GED administrator, said the state is working on a bill that would allow for other tests.

“At least currently, there is no plan to step away from the GED test," said Hernandez. "We still plan to administer the GED in California. We’re just adding an option.”