SOUTH BRONX — Madalyn Vidal's head was spinning after she spent two-and-a-half hours Wednesday taking the first of three parts of the overhauled high school equivalency exam at the FEGS Bronx Youth Center.
"I walked out feeling not smart, like I needed a dictionary," said Vidal, 23, a Bronx resident who left school in 10th grade because of "family issues" but now hopes to go to community college. "My head was hurting. I don't know if it was me or the tension of trying to pass."
The state unveiled a new, more rigorous test to replace the General Educational Development — or GED — in January. But the rollout has been slow, many test centers are only now starting to offer it and some teachers say they haven't been adequately trained to help students prepare for the tougher test, which will ramp up in difficulty and be fully aligned to the Common Core by 2017.
These complaints may sound familiar: kindergarten through 12th graders in the state faced a similar struggle.
But because of backlash from elementary, middle and high school families and teachers, the state's Board of Regents recently decided to delay pegging high school graduation requirements to the Common Core until 2022 — five years later than the previously set target for the high school equivalency exam.
That means New Yorkers seeking a high school equivalency diploma will be held to a higher standard before high school students are.
Vidal enrolled in an adult education program with FEGS in November and was eager to get a diploma, since without it she said her job prospects were dim.
But because adult education programs don't yet have practice tests for the new exam — called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion — Vidal took a practice test for the old, easier GED. So, Wednesday's science and social studies sections — subjects not even on the previous test — threw her for a loop, she said.
Bruce Carmel, senior director of post-secondary planning at FEGS, said students used the old practice exam because the center wanted to give them some test-taking prep, but teachers and students were feeling overwhelmed by the new content-specific knowledge required.
"In the past we didn't have to teach them about the Age of Enlightenment or the Spanish Civil War. It was just reading, writing and test-taking," Carmel said.
"We work with students in foster care, who are homeless, court-involved, might have health problems, young people who stopped going to school in eighth grade," he continued. "For us, if students are going to have to go to school for three years to learn the history and science, that will be difficult. We have students who need to support their families and support their children."
The need for these students to get a high school diploma is critical, Carmel added, noting that even the McDonald's near his South Bronx Center requires a high school equivalency diploma. And with 1.2 million adults in New York City lacking a high school diploma, the demand for preparation programs is so strong that many have had to shut down their wait lists, he said.
Advocates are calling on Albany to provide more funding to help strengthen adult education programs. The United Neighborhood Houses, for instance, is calling for roughly $21 million to increase capacity of programs and for professional development and materials, noting that a high school diploma or equivalency diploma translates into a $324,000 benefit to the city over an individual’s lifetime in terms of increased tax contributions and decreased use of public benefits.
"The reality is, one way or another in adult education, students are going to need to take a more demanding test," Ira Yankwitt, executive director of the Literacy Assistance Center, a nonprofit that provides professional development for adult educators. "The real issue is not the test itself but the level of investment in teachers and students needed to prepare for it."
A high school equivalency diploma should indicate that a student has mastered the same level of skill and content knowledge as a high school grad, he said. "At the same time, you don't want to create a bar of entry that is arbitrarily higher than high school and where they need to demonstrate a higher level of skill than they would need for a high school diploma."
Many adult educators had applauded the state's decision to replace the GED, a revamped version of which was released in January, with a doubled price of roughly $120 per student.
Since New York state covers the cost of the high school equivalency exam, it would have had to reduce the number of students taking the pricier test created by the nonprofit American Council on Education and for-profit testing giant Pearson.
Also, the new GED was immediately aligned to the Common Core rather than to the three-year phase-in of the TASC, created by CTB/McGraw-Hill — which had been the same timeline for general education Common Core requirements when the state approved the contract, advocates noted.
(A McGraw-Hill spokesman said the practice test was orderable as of Thursday with a 15 percent discount.)
"No one likes seeing third and fourth graders failing these assessments," said Kevin Douglas, policy analyst from United Neighborhood Houses. The impact of the changes is also serious for adult learners, he said, but there's been far less attention paid to these students.
"Adult education has been the red-headed stepchild of education," Douglas said.