WASHINGTON — The number of inmates at Maryland correctional facilities who passed the GED high school equivalency exam declined by almost 70 percent last year because of the introduction of a tougher test, according to state figures.
Last year, 220 inmates completed and passed the exam, according to figures provided by the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which administers the test. That compares with an average of 684 per year from 2009 to 2013.

The exam was updated last year in large part to align with new Common Core curriculum standards adopted by more than 40 states, including Maryland, starting in 2010. Representatives of the GED Testing Service, which created the test, said the update was needed to make GED holders competitive with high school graduates. But critics say it increases the difficulties faced by inmates attempting to re-enter society.

“Many fewer people have taken the test; many fewer people have passed the test,” said Stephen Steurer, executive director at the Correctional Education Association, a group that studies education programs in prisons and helped train teachers for the new GED exam.

While fewer inmates are taking the test, the success rate was higher with the new version. Last year, the inmates who passed the test represented 82 percent of those who attempted it, compared with a 73 percent success rate under the previous version.
Gerard Shields, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, pointed to the increase in GED recipients among those who tried to pass, saying the 82 percent who passed compared with a 65 percent success rate nationwide.
“We knew the new test would pose a challenge and that inmates would need to have higher learning skills,” Shields said. “But inmates taking the test passed at a higher rate than those who are not incarcerated, so we’re still having success in getting our inmates their education.”

Before the new exam was released, inmates needed to read at a ninth-grade level to pass the GED, said Maureen O’Connor, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, in an email. Now an inmate must have an 11th-grade reading level, along with advanced writing and math skills.
“Students are not allowed to sit for the GED unless correctional education has determined they are ready and are likely to pass,” O’Connor said.

She declined to comment on reasons for Maryland’s decrease in test-takers, but she did say that the decline was expected as part of the transition to the new version of the test.

Maryland has more than 20 state-run prisons, including three near Frederick County — the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville, the Roxbury Correctional Facility in Hagerstown and the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the state’s adult prison population was nearly 23,000.

In addition to updating the test to reflect Common Core standards being adopted in most states’ high schools, the changes were needed to make GED recipients competitive in the job market, a GED Testing Service spokesman said.

CT Turner, the senior director of public affairs at the GED Testing Service, noted that nearly two-thirds of successful test-takers said they wanted to pursue higher education, but only 12 percent were doing so after passing the old exam.
“We were giving them somewhat false hope,” Turner said of inmates taking the old exam. “We were giving them a second chance at poverty.”

A study by the Washington-based Urban Institute, a liberal think tank that studies social and economic issues, that looked at prison recidivism rates, found that when inmates participated in educational classes and career training, they were less likely to return to prison. Nearly half of the inmates included in the study lacked a high school diploma or equivalency.
When former inmates have skills that prepare them for the workplace, they can find employment and stability in the community, said Janeen Buck Willison, one of the Institute’s senior research associates.
The GED is “a building block,” Buck Willison said.

While the new exam requires students to perform at a higher level, it may prevent the most at-risk test takers from getting their high school equivalency, said David Domenici, executive director at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a Washington-based nonprofit that develops prison education programs that differ from typical state-run programs.
“I also think that there are, especially with incarcerated population, thousands of people who have been poorly educated,” Domenici said. “If the bar to get their GED is so, so high, they may not get it and that would be tragic for them.”
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