With Switch From Pencils To Computers, GED Gets Tougher For Inmates
High school graduation rates are on the rise across the country, except for one segment of the population: They've dropped dramatically for people in prison or jail who need to get their GED diplomas.
Since a new version of the General Education Development test came out last year, the pass rate for inmates has plummeted. Formerly, it was a multiple-choice test taken with a pencil. Not any longer: The test has joined the computer age, abandoning handwritten essays and instead requiring computer skills some inmates simply don't have.
At the Montgomery County jail in southwestern Virginia, a number of inmates have been having a hard time with the updated version.
"When this new test first started, we was like [zero] for 15 as far as people passing this test," says inmate Brandon Snider, one of about 80 people serving short sentences here.
Virginia no longer requires ex-cons to check a box identifying themselves as former inmates on state job applications. Greg Warden, the jail's program director, says that if inmates pass the GED test, the door to a legitimate career path may swing open.
"As far as them coming in and learning, these guys come in, right off the bat, they want this so bad," Warden says.
Frank Fassl dropped out of school in 10th grade and has been in and out of jail ever since. At first, he thought studying for the GED would be a waste of time, but a teacher from a local community college inspired him and he passed on the first try.
"Where before I felt because I was a felon I was never going to have a career or a job or anything, for that matter, but now that I got the diploma, I've done the research on what jobs I can have," Fassl says.
While he waits to be released, he mentors other inmates and ponders a future after jail.
"I got a cap and gown, which I thought I'd never have, and I got a tassel, which I thought I'd never have, and I've got options to go to college," he says.
Some county jails stopped offering GED exams because of last year's changes to the equivalency test. They cite more cumbersome rules for on-site testing centers and not enough teacher training. Some, like this facility in Virginia, kept their testing programs going despite those challenges.
Cpt. Kimberly Haug says she insisted that they do whatever it takes to continue the program.
"Talking 40- or 50-year-old men crying — you know, breaking down in tears saying, 'I never accomplished anything in my life until this,' " she says. "We had to re-evaluate and rethink it — what we were doing when we had to decide whether we were going to buy all the computers, if we were going to go forward with it. We knew we wanted to."
And for good reason. A study by the Rand Corporation found that every dollar spent on correctional education programs saves $5 in reincarceration costs. Since the change to the more difficult test, no one has been collecting data on GED pass rates by inmates — but experts say it's clear they are down.
"We put so many people in prison who are uneducated, and we put them there without any resources," says Stephen Steurer, the former executive director of the Correctional Education Association. "We have a golden opportunity when we put people in prison to educate them."
Steurer says he would like to see much more of an emphasis on "sentencing people to school."
"Make part of their sentence that they achieve some skills with some sort of certification that means they can get a job that pays some kind of decent wage."
Most of the 2 million inmates in the U.S. don't have access to training programs. Computers are often banned from prisons for security reasons. This makes it even harder for inmates — and could mean the difference between unlocking the cycle of incarceration and throwing away the key.
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