The State Board of Education took more steps this week toward allowing two new companies to begin administering high school equivalency tests in Texas, but the pace is frustrating adult education advocates unhappy with GED Testing Services, which holds a monopoly in the state for now.
The board approved the new tests in January, hoping their vendors would offer significantly cheaper tests and bring back a pencil-and-paper version that GED eliminated to the chagrin of high school equivalency certificate seekers with limited computer skills.
But Texas Education Agency staff said this week they won’t be able to accommodate the new vendors for as long as six more months while the agency updates a computer system. The delay has prompted the head of one adult education provider to raise money so students can travel to Oklahoma to take a non-GED paper exam.
The board also voted Friday not to limit how much vendors could charge for the tests, although initial estimates show they will charge no more than $75. That’s slightly less than GED charged before increasing its fee to $135 in 2014.
Along with raising prices after it was acquired by London-based Pearson, GED introduced a more rigorous, online-only exam. That change has prompted more than 20 states to approve alternative high school equivalency exams.
Since the change, the number of Texans taking the GED exam has fallen almost 45 percent — from 50,476 in 2012 to 28,020 in 2014. The passing rate also has plummeted to just 30 percent of those taking the online test, compared to a 60 percent pass rate for the older paper test. Texas already ranked last in the nation for percentage of adult residents with a high school diploma or equivalent. GED has since lowered its passing standard.
Kathryn Thompson, executive director of the Tarrant Literacy Coalition, said she was devastated to learn this week about the potential six-month delay because her students have been studying for one of the new, paper exams on the assumption it would be available early this summer.
“We fully anticipated starting July 1 that these new vendors would be online in Texas,” she said, noting many of her students “cannot take a computer-based test” and that she will raise money to help them travel to Ardmore, Oklahoma, so they can take one of the paper exams.
If they aren’t able to test this summer, Thompson said they’ll be unable to enroll in community college this fall, or will remain stuck in low-wage jobs, struggling to support their children.
Education board member Pat Hardy, a Republican from Fort Worth, repeatedly expressed dismay about the timeline at a series of board meetings this week and, on Friday, blamed education agency staff for it.
“We have dilly dallied long enough with this whole thing,” Hardy said. "I feel like it’s kind of a staff thing, not moving on with it.”
The accusation prompted Martha Dominguez, a Democrat from El Paso, to come to the staff’s defense, saying they are bound by the board’s limited meeting schedule.
Monica Martinez, the education agency’s associate commissioner for Standards and Programs, told Hardy earlier in the week that staff needed the board — which only meets a few times per year — to make decisions about implementation before they could proceed with updates to a computer system to process new test scores.
“This is not any attempt on our part to delay this process,” she said.
Martinez also explained to the board that the education agency has no money to expand the program so will likely have to increase an administrative fee charged for each exam by $10 to help cover the cost of offering two additional vendors, which she estimated will cost up $200,000 per year. The board tentatively approved the fee increase Friday and will take a final vote in July.
Education agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said "there has never been a definite timeline for implementation" of the alternative high school equivalency exams. "We have to completely rebuild the data system so that it can accept and track paper and online test scores from three different vendors."
The education board on Friday unanimously approved a four-month extension to GED Testing Services’ contract, which was set to end in June, so the company can continue administering exams while the education agency prepares to bring on the two new test providers who offer exams called the HiSET and TASC.
After a brief discussion earlier in the week where several members expressed confidence that the market would positively dictate availability and pricing, the board also voted not to place limits how much the vendors can charge to take exams — or dictate that testing centers have to offer all three versions.
“We’ve created a competitive marketplace,” said board member Tom Maynard, a Republican from Georgetown. “I think we let the marketplace take care of that.”