Forty-seven years after he dropped out of Hillhouse High School, Albert Payne, Jr. is racing the clock to get his GED—before the pencil-and-paper test is replaced with a more difficult, online version.
Payne, who’s 65, joined dozens of GED students Monday at a celebration at New Haven’s Adult Ed Center at 580 Ella Grasso Blvd. The event honored 54 people who have passed the GED since June—as well as many more who are hoping to do so.
For Payne, who has been studying for the pencil-and-paper GED for nearly two years, the stakes are high. Payne has already passed three sections of the test. If he passes the final two, math and writing, he will earn a high school equivalency. If he fails, he will have to redo all five sections, in the new online format.
“If I don’t pass it, I’ll have to take it all over again,” said Payne. He said he doesn’t feel anxious. “I am thinking positive.”
The GED is the trademarked name for the General Educational Development tests, the nation’s most widespread high school equivalency test.
Payne is one of 40 million adults who lack a high school diploma, according to GED Testing Service.
Students have two more chances to take the test before January, when the GED is being overhauled into a new, online-only version. Monday’s event served as a pep rally of sorts to quell anxiety about the “countdown” to that deadline, as well as anxiety about how hard the new tests will be.
Created in 1942 as a way to help veterans who missed high school due to World War II, the GED was overseen by a not-for-profit agency, American Council on Education (ACE), for 70 years. ACE has now joined forces with a for-profit outfit called Pearson, one of the nation’s largest educational publishing companies, to create GED Testing Service, which is revamping the test and moving it online. Though the GED has dominated the high school equivalency test landscape for 70 years, there is no federal regulation of the content or cost of the tests. Some states have adopted a new alternative test produced by Educational Testing Service called HiSET, which is set to debut in January. Connecticut and other states are sticking with the GED and adjusting to the changes that ACE and Pearson have made.
The changes aim to update the GED’s standards to the modern era, according to GED Testing Service. When the test debuted in the 1940s, a high school degree was sufficient to land many jobs. Most people who took the GED didn’t intend to go on to higher ed. Now over 65 percent of students who take the GED intend to use it an entrance to post-secondary education, according to the company. The company aimed to better align the tests with the skills students need for college and career.
The old GED includes five sections: reading, writing, math, science and social studies. The new GED includes fewer multiple choice questions, new requirements such as drag-and-drop, and more tests of critical thinking: Click here for a sample.
While the cost of the GED will double in most states, the cost of the GED in New Haven will remain $13, according to Alicia Caraballo (pictured), director of the city’s adult ed center. That’s because the state subsidizes it, she said. GED classes and all high school completion classes at New Haven Adult Ed are free for New Haveners, as per state law, Caraballo said. One benefit, she said, is the new GED offers same-day results and online feedback.
Students in New Haven have two final chances to take the traditional paper-and-pencil GED: Dec. 21 and Dec. 28.
Albert Payne started taking GED classes as a way to maintain unemployment benefits. Payne worked at Marlin Firearms in North Haven for 22 years, first as a machine operator and then on the “glue line,” gluing metal parts to hunting rifles. After Remington Arms bought the company, Marlin closed its North Haven plant in 2011. Payne, who was 63 at the time, said he was offered a job—if he moved to upstate New York or Kentucky. He decided not to move. His last day of work was Jan. 20, 2011.
“I never thought I would lose a job,” Payne said.
He said he and his wife, who got laid off from her job as a certified nursing assistant, refinanced their mortgage and pooled their 401(k)s to get by.
In January 2012, he signed up for GED classes at New Haven Adult Ed.
“When I came here, I thought it was just a joke.” He thought he would “pretend” to study for the GED just to get unemployment benefits. “But once I got here, met the teachers for a week or two, my heart changed.”
Payne attended Hillhouse High as a teenager. Well, he enrolled there, but he didn’t really go. Because of bullying at school, he stayed home all but three months of the year, he recalled.
“I had a problem with my speech,” Payne said. “I didn’t like nobody to laugh at me.” He dropped out in the 10th grade. He said he later tried going to night classes at the adult ed center, but was frustrated by disruptive classmates.
Top Cat’s Challenge
After losing his job in 2011, Payne (at left in photo, with two former Marlin coworkers who also lost their jobs) found new motivation from a great-grandson, Daysun, who goes by the nickname “Top Cat.”
Top Cat posed Payne a challenge.
“How can you tell me to go to school when you didn’t finish?” Top Cat asked.
Payne said Top Cat was right. Payne said his quest for a GED has become more symbolic than practical. He turned 65 and is living on Social Security. He’s no longer looking for a full-time job. But he’s driven to get his GED by a desire to serve as a model for his family.
“I’m gonna prove to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren that no matter how old you are, education is important,” he said.
He said his grandkids and even his great-grandkids have offered him help with his homework. “They have my back,” he said.
Adult education officials honored Payne and his coworkers at Monday’s ceremony. They also honored students like Deanna Salter (pictured), who just earned their GEDs. Deanna, who’s 17, dropped out of high school after getting pregnant at age 16. She showed up with her daughter Makenzie (also pictured), who’s now 10 months old. With her GED, she can now progress to a higher degree. She said she aims to enroll in Gateway Community College and study journalism or medicine.
About 2,600 to 3,000 students attend classes at New Haven Adult Ed every year for 12 or more hours, according to Principal Caraballo. Another 1,000 sign up for shorter periods of time. Though the new GED is online, students will be required to sign up through an adult education center in order to take it, according to Caraballo. Students still have to take the test on-site. Caraballo said in order to serve as a testing site for the new GED, the adult ed center had to go through a certification process with Pearson, which included a technology check. GED-takers must present photo ID and have their pictures taken before taking the GED, she said.
Caraballo said her center passed the certification and will begin offering the new GED in January. Click here to sign up.
Salter was one of first six students in New Haven to take the GED online. The test didn’t reflect the new higher standards; it was equivalent to the paper-and-pencil test, except on the computer.
Tahisha Porter (pictured), the adult ed GED facilitator, said students took the test online as part of an effort to prepare them for the transition.
Computer skills are critical in today’s workforce: The 10 biggest companies in the USA, such as Target and McDonalds, all require an online application, according to a video by GED Testing Service Porter played for the audience.
As her students look toward the new online test, Porter urged them to be confident. She shared her own story as an inspiration.
“I was once where you are,” she told the audience. Porter, of Massachusetts, became homeless at age 13. At age 15, she became a teen mom. She dropped out of high school.
“Despite those hardships, I had the courage and determination to beat those odds,” she said.
When she moved to New Haven at age 19 in 1994, she enrolled in GED classes at New Haven Adult Ed. She passed the test in just two months—and went on to become a GED instructor right away.
“Put away all of your anxieties about the test being harder than usual,” Porter said. “You can conquer it.”