Some state legislators and education officials are concerned that fewer Arkansans may take the General Educational Development test after expected testing fees go into effect next year.
This year, the state Legislature enacted Act 1063, which authorizes the state Board of Career Education to approve fees for administering the GED. The test, which offers people who did not graduate from high school a way to obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma, has previously been administered in Arkansas at no charge to test takers, with the state covering the cost of about $20 per test.
In January, the national GED Testing Service will begin charging the state $120 per test, or $30 for each of the test’s four parts. Officials with the Arkansas Department of Career Education say the board likely will vote to begin charging test takers all or some of that cost.
"We of course don’t want to, but funding is going to necessitate that we do charge," said state GED Administrator Janice Hanlon.
The state would continue to cover the cost for prison inmates, Hanlon said. She said others who plan to take the test or have started taking it but have not completed all four parts are encouraged to do so before January, while the test is still free.
The GED Testing Service will raise its fees at the same time that it rolls out a revamped version of the test that will align with the Common Core education standards and will be administered via computer instead of pencil and paper. Also, test takers will receive more detailed reports on how they performed and the areas in which they need to improve.
Some lawmakers sought during this year’s legislative session to secure state funds to cover the fees so test takers would not have to be charged. Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, succeeded in adding an amendment to a budget bill to appropriate $1.87 million to pay GED test fees, but the appropriation was not funded.
Some lawmakers objected to the appropriation, arguing that it was reasonable for test takers to pay at least some of the cost.
"Sometimes there may be hardship reasons that people had to quit school or whatever, but in some cases it’s kids that didn’t want to apply themselves in high school and didn’t want to do the things required to be successful and so they chose to drop out of school," Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, said last week.
"We fund, obviously, K-12 already, and then they choose this alternative route and then some people feel like the taxpayers that did do what they were supposed to should just be OK with picking up the whole tab," said Rogers, who has announced plans to run for governor in 2014.
Sabin said he found arguments along those lines "silly."
"That’s insensitive and it’s tone deaf, and it doesn’t acknowledge many of the factors that lead people to have to rely on the GED for the kind of certification they need to be employed," he said. "There are family instances, there are economic challenges, there are sometimes inadequate services provided by our schools and our educational system. If someone is going to make the effort to take this test, then I think the state should do everything they can to help that person and not impede them in trying to become a productive member of society."
Sabin said lawmakers’ priorities were "very off base."
"The Legislature just gave out over $100 million in tax cuts, and most of those tax cuts were geared towards the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations and manufacturers. So to argue that somehow it was impossible to find $1.8 million to enable people who are working hard to help themselves and become productive members of the community makes absolutely no sense to me," he said.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 Arkansans take the GED each year, and between 6,000 and 8,000 pass. A practice test is given in advance of the real test to determine whether a person has a chance to pass, weeding out many who are not prepared.
Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, who also pushed for state funding to cover the test fees, said she is fiscally conservative, but she believes helping people qualify to get jobs makes good fiscal sense.
"We need those people to be part of the work force," she said.
Department of Career Education Director Bill Walker said charging people to take the GED test is sure to have "a chilling effect."
"When you’re talking about going from zero to whatever, that’s a significant shift in state policy," he said. "Most (of the test takers) I would think are not probably very well off."
Walker said he did not yet know what recommendation he would make to the board. Various ideas have been suggested, including creating a scholarship program that would accept private donations, looking for an alternative to the GED, asking for a portion of the state’s anticipated budget surplus and asking for a new appropriation during the 2014 fiscal session.
Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, said he wished the Legislature would have funded GED test costs during this year’s session, but "it didn’t generate enough interest."
"Maybe we should have tried a little harder," he said.