BRONX — Test prep books for the recently overhauled high school equivalency exam arrived last month at the Bronx Youth Center — and left math instructor Renee Davis surprised with sample questions about advanced concepts like trigonometric functions and imaginary numbers.
In her 15 years teaching GED prep classes, Davis never needed to teach such a high a level of math. Now, she not only needs to rewrite her curriculum to better prepare her students — she also has to brush up on her own skills.
"It's math that I have to re-teach myself," Davis said. "It went to a much higher level. It's hard."
The 7.5-hour Test Assessing Secondary Completion, known as the TASC, covers far more challenging topics than the GED, requiring students to know everything from Newton's second law of motion to the reasons particular amendments were added to the Constitution.
On the writing section, students now have to read nonfiction articles and compare and contrast them — much more difficult than the old open-ended GED prompts, which asked students questions like what they would do with $1 million, Davis said.
Many students who took the new TASC earlier this year walked out in frustration without finishing, advocates said.
"It was kind of overwhelming," said Mayra Ortez, 18, of The Bronx, who took the test in May. "I didn't think I was doing any of it right. I didn't think I'd finish the writing. The math was the hardest."
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Ortez, who left high school two years ago when she had a baby, was sure she had failed.
But she was thrilled to find out that she had passed the exam, scoring at least 500 out of 900 on each of the five sections and earning 2,871 overall. Ortez is now taking a pre-college program at the Bronx Youth Center before starting at City Tech in August to study dental hygiene.
"The math from the test is now what I'm seeing in my college prep class," Ortez said. "I've been telling all of my friends how hard the test was."
Though the TASC is significantly more difficult than the old GED, it's scored in a way that ensures at least some students pass, experts said.
The minimum passing score for the new test was determined by giving it to a group of recent high school graduates who likely also struggled with the more difficult questions, said Kevin Douglas, of the advocacy group United Neighborhood Houses.
"It is likely that individuals can get fewer correct answers and still pass, relative to the percentage correct they would have needed on the GED," Douglas said.
"Early on this year, there were many reports of students failing to finish the test, or failing to return for the second day of testing because they were so discouraged," Douglas continued, "not realizing that even with what might have felt like a poor performance, they may have indeed passed if they persisted."
The New York State Education Department decided to use the new TASC after a revamped GED — also Common Core-aligned — doubled its price to roughly $120 per student.
Since the state covers the full cost of the high school equivalency exam, it would have had to reduce the number of students each year that could take the new GED, created by the American Council on Education and testing giant Pearson.
Instead, the state selected the TASC, created by another major testing company, CTB/McGraw-Hill, which costs the state just $52 per student.
The state expects the pass rates for the new test to "decrease slightly" from last year's GED, but the data won't be available until January, education department spokesman Tom Dunn said.
Of the 23 students from the Bronx Youth Center who took the new test so far this year, about half passed, said Bruce Carmel, senior director of post-secondary planning at FEGS, which operates the Bronx Youth Center.
That number was slightly down from the center's average two-thirds pass rate on the old GED, he said.
"The experience of taking the test is hugely different because it's harder," Carmel said. "We have to do a lot of work of encouraging students to stick with it. It's an interesting opportunity for us. We have to teach students not to give up and to persevere — these are important life lessons."
As word spreads about the more difficult test, advocates hope some students who are considering dropping out of high school might stay to get their diploma instead, especially if they have just a year left in high school and would need two years in an adult education program to pass the new exam.
"Maybe they'll get a whiff of this test and stay in school," Davis said.