By Dan Hinman, Director of Income, United Way of Greater Cleveland – as featured in The Plain Dealer Opinion section.
In February, Cleveland was listed by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) as the nation’s “most distressed large city.” The first data point EIG used was the number of high school degrees held by the 25 and older population. In our region, 23 percent of this group lacks a high school diploma.
When a business grows or looks to relocate to Northeast Ohio, they need assurance the labor market will provide enough workers with the required skills and that is why this was the first metric used by EIG. But since the General Education Development (GED) test was privatized in 2011 and altered in 2013, the number of Ohioans passing the GED “plunged 85 percent, from more than 14,800 a year on average between 2009 and 2013 to fewer than 2,200 in 2014,” according to a recent report from Policy Matters Ohio (PMO).
The GED was supposed to offer a solution for those who didn’t have a high school diploma but had skills to move to a post-secondary program, whether college, trade or certificate. But due to the impact of GED privatization in 2011, PMO estimates Ohio has 22,000 fewer people with a GED than it should.
This impacted the economic standing of the region, as the EIG report shows.
“The Ohio economy is tough on workers with limited formal education. Without a high school diploma, it is virtually impossible to start a career or obtain a family-sustaining wage,” the report states. “Employers look to high school credentials to show an applicant understands basic educational concepts, but also that the candidate has the diligence to complete a degree or an equivalent program. For good or ill, credentials matter – either as a signifier of mastery over a subject or as a proxy for competence in workplace behaviors.”
There are many factors behind the alarming numbers, with a direct impact on Cleveland’s economy.
“One of the biggest changes to the 2014 GED was the move from paper-and-pencil to computerized testing,” said Bonnie Entler, executive director of Seeds of Literacy, a nonprofit organization that provides free, basic education and GED preparation to adults in the Cleveland area. “Most of our students lack computer skills, which are crucial to education and employment.”
Students may have the language and math skills to pass, but have difficulty using a computer to navigate the test. PMO reports about 48 percent of Ohioans without a diploma don’t have a computer or Internet service.
Another barrier is the GED tripled in price between 2011 and 2014, from $40 to $120; ironic for a test whose specific audience is struggling financially.
The high school diploma metric is just one aspect of the EIG report. This has been an issue for many years in Greater Cleveland and is one Cleveland Metropolitan Schools, United Way and many other entities are working hard to improve. In addition to United Way actively funding local agencies that aid those seeking to obtain a GED, United Way’s 2-1-1 service can help connect Greater Clevelanders to GED preparation classes.
There is some good news; in January, the GED Testing Service lowered the passing score by five points, in “recognition that students who passed the latest, tougher version of it were doing better in college than high school graduates.” For those taking the GED to place out of introductory college classes, this will have a big impact, according to Entler.
“Since 2014, 55 percent of GED test sections failed by our students scored within the new 145-149 passing range. So because of the scoring change, 20 Seeds students will have passed sections of the GED,” she said.
Since this scoring is retroactive to January 1, 2014, it has been reported that more than 1,400 Ohioans will receive good news in the mail: they will now have a GED. This will make a positive change in people’s lives and eventually in the data used by businesses to assess Northeast Ohio’s workforce. But Ohio needs to further evaluate the GED system and work toward helping those who want to make the “most distressed” designation a thing of the distant past.