By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer
Before Taryn Gill got pregnant and dropped out of high school at 16, the Thomson, Ill., teen had dreams of being a nurse in the Air Force.
Her dreams, however, were compromised by a lackadaisical attitude and a new baby, prompting her not to return to high school her senior year.
“It was a bad choice. It was a bad choice on my part,” she said. “I had the support, I just didn’t have the drive.”
Gill, now 25, said she doesn’t resemble the indolent 16-year old who left her education behind. It wasn’t time that changed all for Gill.
In the past nine years, she’s made a concerted effort to change her life and that of her two children. That effort, she said, started by passing her General Educational Development Test, commonly known as the GED.
The GED diploma offers the more than 39 million U.S. adults without a high school diploma a chance to earn their high school equivalency and a path back to academic and employment opportunities.
More than 690,000 U.S. adults took the test in 2011, according to the GED Testing Service. Of those, 5,600 were Iowans and 27,000 were from Illinois.
An average 10 people take the GED test at Clinton Community College every month in order to open educational and professional opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise be afforded. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that while the average monthly earnings of a GED diploma holder are less than that of someone with a high school diploma, someone who has a GED diploma will earn an average of $700 more a month than someone with no high school equivalency.
The GED test is a battery of five tests: writing, reading, social studies, science and math, which can be taken separately. Each test is timed and the cost to take all five subject tests at CCC is $100. To pass, students must have an average score of 450.
GED testing officials across the country are in the midst of a vigorous campaign to let current GED students know about a major change coming to the test. Starting in January 2014 the test will move from paper to computer, it will be altered from five subjects to four, and it will be revised to align with the curriculum used in most states in order to make GED holders more college or career ready.
Students are urged to complete the GED test before the end of the year because those who have taken some sections, but not passed all five parts will have to start all over.
Peg Garrison, Eastern Iowa Community College dean of adult education, has been with the college for 20 years. While the test was originally introduced in 1942 for U.S. military personnel who had not completed high school, now Garrison said she’s sees people from a plethora of different backgrounds obtaining their high school equivalency in order to improve thier lives. The average test taker at any of EICC campuses is 23 to 24 years old, she said.
“It’s going to improve their finances, employment, parenthood, citizenship,” Garrison said. “I think a lot of employers recognize that they made the commitment to go back.”
A GED prospect is not eligible to take the test until he or she is 17 and not enrolled in high school. That’s the way Gill did it.
“Reality hits you and it hits you hard,” Gill said. “Reality hit me that I was missing out on prom and I wasn’t going to be able to graduate with my friends. So I think I did it to prove it to myself.”
According to Garrison, 98 percent of test takers at EICC, such as Gill, pass the test. GED professionals with EICC ensure that the test taker is positioned for success. Before a prospect can take the GED test, he or she must take a preliminary assessment and follow up with an advising session to determine the study plan that will help them the most in obtaining a GED diploma.
Once the candidate has taken the assessment and an advising session, they are encouraged to drop into one of the allocated study times to get help.
“They’re adults. They’ve got to work, they’ve got kids. This way they can focus on what they need to focus on,” Garrison said.
Students are also required to take a practice test in each of the five test subjects before they can take the real test. A score of 500 is required on the practice tests before a student can move on.
“That way they know what they’re taking and they know that they’re ready,” Garrison said.
Debby Gosnell has been instructing GED students for about a dozen years. She said her biggest role is to be a cheerleader and reverse some of the negative associations with these subjects for the adults making the effort to earn the GED diploma.
“The students who come here are here because they want to. Most are here because getting a GED is a goal of theirs,” Gosnell said. “They can do it, they just have a lot of negative piled against them.”
While the move to a computer-based test will be one of the biggest changes since the test was started in 1942, Gosnell said she’s seen another change in the time she’s been instructing. The push for students to consider what they will do after they have the equivalency diploma in hand has grown and is a critical piece of the program.
“The GED opens some doors, but we stress that you’re going to need some extra school or training to get that dream job,” Gosnell said.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau released last February shows that adults who have earned their GED diploma are less likely to continue on to higher education. While 73 percent of those who received a high school diploma went on to complete at least some postsecondary education, less than half (43 percent) of GED diploma recipients pursued postsecondary schooling. Only 5 percent earned a bachelor's degree or higher.
To encourage more GED holders to move on to postsecondary education, EICC and the Paul B. Sharar Foundation offer a scholarship program for GED students in which they receive a $350 voucher that can be applied to a three-credit hour course or certificate program. Students have two years from the end of the fiscal year they received their GED diploma to use the voucher.
Since the voucher program was started in 2004, 111 students have taken advantage of it. Of those, eight have earned an associate degree and eight have earned certificates.
While Gill didn’t take advantage of the credit voucher, she did decide to go back to school. She’ll graduate this May with an associate degree in administrative office services. When listing all the jobs available to her with her degree, Gill can barely find a place to stop.
“Once you realize that you’re capable, you build self-esteem. It’s like ‘wow, I did that. Now let’s see what else I can do,’” Gill said.