SEATTLE — In December, Aisha Gonzalez lived for her 18th birthday, for its promise to unlock her future.

Because her education was interrupted before she started high school, she needs a GED to move on. But there was a hitch: To take the GED, a high school equivalency exam from the testing company Pearson VUE, people need their own ID.

And to take it online, youth under 18 also need the consent of a parent with an ID. Gonzalez is estranged from her mom, so she had to wait until her birthday to get the paperwork moving.

Gonzalez’s case is extreme, yet barriers to taking the exam — exaggerated by the pandemic — and other life disruptions caused the number of people who took the test in Washington last year to plummet by 60%.

With in-person testing centers largely closed, and state Department of Licensing offices affected by the pandemic, some students wait months after they prep for the exam for their test date — leaving them in danger of forgetting what they’ve studied.

As with many other forms of school, the pandemic amplified existing hurdles. Test completions are down. In 2019, 5,522 students in Washington earned their GED by successfully passing exams in all four subject areas, according to Lou Sager, a member of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. For 2020, that number was 2,192 as of Dec. 22.

Program coordinators say putting the GED online has been a mixed bag: While the test took a few months to adapt, it did ultimately launch online — albeit with rules that keep some students out. Educators hope the online version will last beyond COVID-19 because it gives students more flexibility.

Still, some note that the Advanced Placement exams — tests that a broad base of affluent families count on for acceleration and college credit — got online faster and more seamlessly than did the GED. In April, the College Board announced all test takers could take the APs at home in May.

“If you think about who the audience tends to be for the AP, it’s a different population,” said Nicole Yohalem, opportunity youth initiatives director at the Community Center for Education Results. The AP’s pivot to online testing, she said, was “almost instant. Where was the pressure on Pearson?”

The online GED became available to some Washington students in June. “It’s a great alternative and yet it presents some challenges,” said Jamalia Jones, program manager of YouthSource, a King County initiative that helps 16- to 24-year-olds who have dropped out of school.

“Because there are so many requirements, things you have to check off and have, it’s hard,” Jones said.

While the GED has become more accessible, it hasn’t gone far enough, said Ali Cohen, the youth high school completion coordinator at Renton Technical College. “There was a slow and cumbersome rollout for the remote testing and it followed the hierarchy of adults tested first and then youth and Spanish speakers,” she said. Lost in the transition to online: Some accommodations for people with disabilities, who would normally be able to get assistance when taking an in-person test.

What happened to the GED?

In 1942, the GED was developed partially as a solution for another moment of intense upheaval: returning World War II veterans whose schooling was interrupted by the call of duty.

Now, for students who dropped out of high school or couldn’t participate, the GED — in Washington at least — is their last chance to prove they’ve earned the equivalent of a high school education.

In March, when schools closed, so did all GED test centers, said Sager. Throughout the pandemic, Carol Cleveland, the principal of iGrad, a Kent Open Doors program for students who need an alternative to traditional and alternative high schools, tried to keep students motivated — while facing disruptions like canceled in-person testing appointments.

In May, Pearson launched a pilot online test. By June, some Washington students were able to take it.

There are strict safeguards: Students are recorded, and an online proctor watches them take the test via the student’s webcam. A student needs a private, walled room with a closed door — a hurdle for students experiencing homelessness or living in cramped spaces.

They need a government-issued ID, a computer with a webcam, sound and microphone, and consistent Wi-Fi. Students can’t take notes on paper, or eat or drink anything but a glass of water.

Additionally, students need to have achieved a passing “green” score on a practice test within 60 days of sitting for the test. The tests cost $30 each, though some programs help students cover the fees.

Breaking these rules, the GED website says, “will result in your exam being revoked, loss of payment, and you will be banned from testing in the future.”

At first, online testing was only available to students 18 and older. In September, online testing opened up to those ages 16 and 17 who had parental consent. In October, Pearson began offering the test online in Spanish, and an additional form was added to allow people to retest online.

By early December, Cleveland had just gained the ability to provide the exam through the filters that came pre-installed on the Kent School District laptops. That hitch had prevented students from testing at home on their own computers — they would try to borrow others’. They can now use their own.

Cleveland said her program of 235 was down about 50% over the previous year for completion — because of COVID-19, home privacy challenges and tech issues. “We’re in a good place right now,” she said; her students all have access to a laptop and Wi-Fi.

Only a few testing centers are currently open with social distancing rules in place — yielding wait times as long as six months. One student whose earlier test was invalidated by a glitch reported waiting that long due to a combination of issues: testing challenges, COVID-19 disruptions and changing staff at her testing center.

The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has helped open several new test centers, Sager said. TC Futures, a youth center in Kennewick, did so in June.

One new center is likely coming to Kent. Cleveland is establishing iGrad as an official test site for iGrad students only.

While that process is just beginning, Cleveland will offer students the opportunity to take the online test in a private iGrad space one by one, starting this month, which will help students who have been evicted or don’t have enough space at home.

“A lot of our kids are traumatized already,” Cleveland said. “The quicker we can innovate and get focused and have clarity toward their end goal, the better off they will be. We can’t sit and twiddle our thumbs while kids move into depression or get on the wrong path.”

Why are there barriers?

There are good reasons for protection, said Sager. The government ID requirement is a state rule; Oregon doesn’t require it, but has a stricter age cutoff.

“You would be shocked at the number of times that people come in and try to impersonate their brother or friend,” Sager said. There have also been issues with how districts have counted students preparing for the GED toward graduation rates.

For in-person testing, students need an ID that has a picture, signature and Washington address; or an out-of-state ID and a bill addressed to them here.

Sager has helped students and schools get alternative forms of ID approved when necessary. That’s not possible online, she said.

She wants people to know she can help: “If you’re having problems and can’t get ahold of the test center, get ahold of me.”

Figuring it out, one student at a time

In Renton, Cohen often felt like she was “running through the dark” when trying to figure out what to tell students about GED access amid the pandemic.

Still, having students test from home has been an upgrade, she said. “In the past, we weren’t always able to get them to a testing center. If we’re 15 minutes late, the center would tell them you’ve got to reschedule.”

Because Chromebooks often don’t meet the GED’s system compatibility requirements, she had a student test in her classroom; her mom had to be there with her ID, hold it up to the webcam and let the proctor know her daughter had permission to test.

Cohen worked with Gonzalez, who contacted Renton Technical College after her boyfriend encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. There, she enrolled in GED classes.

Gonzalez said her mother didn’t let her attend high school, counting on her to care for her four younger siblings. Still, her head is always buried in a book; romantic tales and adventures let her escape reality.

She passed three practice exams within two days this past September. She passed the fourth shortly thereafter. Gonzalez was elated. “I always wanted to go to school and participate and do something with my life,” said the bubbly teen.

Then, disappointment. In a Zoom meeting, Gonzalez learned she could not take the official test because of the paperwork.

First, she felt she was ready. Then, she found herself wondering, “Am I still going to be prepared by the time I take the test?”

Renton Technical College allows its youth GED students to take college classes for free, which she started this month. But to become a nurse, she’ll need the GED.

She tried to get things rolling. But when she called the Department of Licensing, they told her that she could not make an appointment — even for a date after her 18th — without consent.

Gonzalez celebrated her birthday with cake and excitement.

“I’m feeling more free,” she said, after turning 18. “I can be my own person now. … I don’t need a parent.”

While she waits for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, she’s trying to stay fresh on the material.

She has her laptop and Wi-Fi ready.

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