Schenectady County

Restarts loom as GED expires

To save money, New York will hire a new exam provider next year, McGraw Hill, which will offer a dif

Sayquan Utsey has just nine months left.

He must pass the GED by the end of the year or start all over again.

He has already passed the science, social studies and English portions of the test. But he failed the math section.

That was a year ago, and at the time there was no reason to hurry. He didn’t have to retake the sections he passed and he could retake the math section as many times as he wanted while he studied.

That’s no longer true.

To save money, New York will hire a new exam provider next year, McGraw Hill, which will offer a different test. The GED will be no more.

And that means Utsey’s passing scores will vanish too. If he doesn’t pass the last section of the GED this year, he’ll have to start all over again with the new test, McGraw Hill’s High School Equivalency exam.

New York officials began looking for a new test last year, when the company that offers the GED announced its updated version of the test would cost $120 — well above the $50 per test that New York state pays now.

New York was among many states that complained about the cost increase and began looking for alternatives. Last month, McGraw Hill won the bid, agreeing to offer a high school equivalency exam for roughly the same amount as the current GED.

Now the company must quickly put that test together before the more expensive GED is rolled out on Jan. 1.

Even if New York had stuck with the GED, students would have had to start over. The new test will be so different that students would have to take every section again if they don’t pass all five sections by the end of the year.

This is the third time Utsey, who is in his 30s, has tried to finish his high-school career. He went to Washington Irving Adult and Continuing Education Center in 2010 to take free GED classes, but his teacher wanted him to teach himself through worksheets. That didn’t work for Utsey, so he left the school.

He took the exam on his own last summer, and came close to passing. Then, this year, he went back to Washington Irving to focus on math.

“Math is something I like to do. My problem is fractions,” he said.

He’s trying to make up now for a decision he made as a teenager, when he opted to get a job and an apartment, rather than to stay in high school.

He took jobs in warehouses. But that’s no longer satisfying.

“Now I’m looking for career jobs,” he said.

And he wants to go to college. But he can’t, unless he can show them he earned a high school equivalency diploma by passing the GED.

Sweating the math with him are Frank Munroe and Victor Miller. Both of them are hoping to finish this year.

“I’m just starting,” Munroe said, but added that he can “definitely” finish by December. He started studying again at the beginning of the year.

“I’ve come a long way. Before, I didn’t even know fractions!” he said.

He dropped out of high school decades ago. But now, in his 30s, he wants a job that he can’t get.

“I’m good with my hands. I’m a carpenter. I can do tile, paint,” he said. “I’m trying to get into the carpentry union as an apprentice. It requires a GED.”

He went to a union event and took a test, competing with other would-be apprentices for a place at the top of the call list. He was feeling confident about his score until they asked him about his high school diploma.

When he confessed he had dropped out, they tossed his application aside.

“You fall right off the list,” he said. “You’re not even on the list.”

But getting his GED meant sacrificing time that he could be working. He decided to commit to spending every morning at Washington Irving, from 9 a.m. to noon, even though that means he can only work in the afternoon and evening.

“It’s a hard choice to choose between going to work and getting a GED,” he said. “But this is our second chance in life, to correct our mistakes. Time is against us. Time is short.”

Nine months. It’s a drumbeat at Washington Irving. The sign outside announces, in big letters, that the exam will change next year.

The school will offer the test three times this May, as well as once a month through the rest of the year. Students can take it three times over the course of the year.

Victor Miller is hoping to take it next month. He’s been studying math since he failed that section on his pre-test.

His problems with math actually pushed him to come to the school. He tried to help his 11-year-old daughter learn decimals. It was a miserable failure.

“She went to class the next day and got everything wrong,” he said. “I took that as my fault.”

He also tried to apply at Schenectady County Community College to take classes in HVAC. The college turned him down.

“You gotta have a GED or diploma to come in the door,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that you have experience. Nowadays in society, you can’t work at the nearest McDonald’s without a high school diploma or a GED.”

Miller is disabled, but he wants to work anyway. He used to be a laborer at an HVAC company, and now he wants to open his own HVAC business.

“I can work around it,” he said of his disability, for which he is getting federal disability assistance. “As long as I’m not doing a whole lot of physical labor myself. God gave me the strength to get up.”

And he can’t respect himself unless he can work.

“A man isn’t a man if he can’t take care of his family and home,” he said.

He’s practicing his decimals and his fractions, writing essays and reading history. He’s hoping to get his GED soon so he can enroll at SCCC.

“I feel personally I’m ready to take the test,” he said.

But if he fails, he said, he’ll just take it again — and again. He has nine months.

“I’m confident I’ll pass it. If I do fail, it won’t be by so much. It will be by a couple questions. And I’ll take it again,” he said.

If he fails three times, he’s out — he’ll have to try again with the next test next year.

Jesse Roylance, director at Washington Irving, is planning to offer extra GED exam days late in the year, for the “last-minute rush.” But he wants those test-takers to sign up now, and take a prep class.

“The success of walk-ins is poor,” he said.

About 40 percent of the walk-ins pass the test. If they first enroll at Washington Irving, and study until their teachers say they’re ready, 90 percent of them pass.

Roylance is designing 5-day prep sessions to be offered later in the year for those who won’t sit through months of classes. But students should sign up now. Washington Irving, like most agencies funded by the government, is facing a 5-percent cut due to the federal budget cuts. Roylance is worried that he might have to turn away students.

“If they wait until the end of the year, they might not find a seat available at an exam anywhere in the state,” he said.

And there might not be space for them in prep programs, either.

Roylance may increase the number of classes he offers this fall. But then he’ll have to cut back on the classes he offers next spring, so he hasn’t decided whether to do it.

Word has already gotten out about the new test. Washington Irving had a record number of enrollees last September, and many of those students have now passed the test.

But there may be as many as 8,000 Schenectady County residents who have passed parts of the test but haven’t completed it, Roylance said. Statewide, 200,000 people have passed portions of the test.

Roylance wants to get as many of the county residents through the test as possible. “If they enroll in a prep program now, and actually go to classes, there’s no reason they shouldn’t pass it,” he said. “We’re really pushing to get everyone through.”

Enrollment is up by 100 to 150 students at Washington Irving, Roylance said. That’s a lot — and in the fall, when 400 people enrolled over the course of three days, Roylance had to hire extra teachers. But it’s nowhere near 8,000 people. Only about 1,200 people take the test at Washington Irving each year.

Washington Irving provides the entire county’s GED services — and its programs are hugely popular. Although Schenectady County is smaller than Albany County, more students take the test through Washington Irving than in all of Albany County, Roylance said.

Those who don’t pass this year will take the new exam. The results will be the same — those who pass the exam will get a high school equivalency diploma from the state Education Department, just as they get now after passing the GED.

But Roylance still doesn’t know what the new exam will test. Will it be harder than the current test? Will it focus on different skills? He doesn’t know.

“You can imagine how maddening it is for us,” he said.

When the GED was last changed in 2002, he had materials for the new test 18 months in advance. This time, at the nine-month mark, he still has nothing.

“But the focus right now is getting everyone through,” he said.

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