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Fewer East Tennesseans Taking And Passing High School Equivalency Test

WUOT News, Matt Shafer Powell

In March of 2009, the unemployment rate in East Tennessee was skyrocketing.  And Melissa Nance’s phone was ringing off the hook.

As Executive Director of Knoxville’s Friends of Literacy, Nance works closely with Knox County Schools’ Adult Education Program to provide assistance for those East Tennesseans who may have dropped out of school and would now like to get a high school equivalency diploma.

Those workers who had never received a high school diploma or equivalency degree were among the first to lose their jobs in the Great Recession.   “We actually had a waiting list,” Nance says. 

But times are changing.  The unemployment rate in Knox County has reached pre-recession levels.   And Melissa Nance’s phone has virtually stopped ringing. 

In 2014, Nance says the number of adults receiving a high school equivalency degree in Knox County fell by one-half.

Nance believes the improved economy provides one reason for the decrease.  But she says it’s not the only reason.

For starters, the test is more difficult than it used to be as part of an effort to conform it to Common Core standards for K-12 education.  “In the past,” Nance says, “if you could do some basic Algebra I, you would probably past the math section.  Now, there’s calculus and trigonometry.  I don’t know that I could pass a test that had calculus and trigonometry and I have a college degree.”

The result, Nance says, is that fewer adults are passing the test.  Others are so intimidated, they don’t even try. 

Nance believes there’s also a new element of uncertainty for those thinking of taking the test—or tests, as it turns out.  After 70 years of offering only the General Education Development (GED) test, Tennessee added another exam known as the Hi-SET in 2014.  There are several differences between the tests, including the cost and the testing method. 

Nance believes those options have caused some confusion, like a restaurant menu with too many items.   “Currently, there’s lots of barriers,” she says, “and I think some of the students are unable to see beyond the barriers and get overwhelmed and just throw their hands up and say ‘Oh well’.”

A resurgent economy has given more adult students the option of saying "Oh well."  And while an improved job market is a good thing, Nance worries those students will someday regret passing on the chance to improve their standing in life.  “Getting that high school equivalency diploma just opens up the opportunities for more income, better jobs and the opportunity to further their education, should they choose,” Nance says.  

Hear this April 2009 NPR story on Knox County's surge in GED applicants

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