Why Are Coloradans Going to Wyoming for High School Degrees?

From left, Sarah Hernandez, Jackie Esparza and Lexis Hernandez pose for a photo in front of a Welcome to Wyoming sign on Sept. 10, 2015 at the state border with Colorado. The trio were traveling to Cheyenne to take the HiSET high school diploma equivalency test.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

From left, Sarah Hernandez, Jackie Esparza and Lexis Hernandez pose for a photo in front of a Welcome to Wyoming sign on Sept. 10, 2015 at the state border with Colorado. The trio were traveling to Cheyenne to take the HiSET high school diploma equivalency test.

Three young women are going to take a test 90 miles away from home.

Just south of Cheyenne, Jackie Esparza pulls over her maroon Dodge SUV on Interstate 25 to pose for a selfie with the “Welcome to Wyoming” sign. The 19-year-old Thornton-resident is excited for the photo – it’s only the second time she’s been this far north.

The women are teen moms who never graduated high school but want to become cops or nurses. Their best chance is to earn their high school equivalency degree – but not by taking the GED offered in Colorado, they say.

In 2014, the GED high school equivalency test was rewritten, computerized and privatized. The content now reflects the national Common Core standards and costs $150 for all four modules – $90 more than previously. Since its transformation, the number of Coloradans taking and passing the new test each week has plummeted by 75 percent.

Nineteen other states have responded to falling numbers of test takers by offering alternatives to the GED, such as the HiSET, run by the administrator of the GRE graduate entrance exam, or another called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC.

The women on this road trip are attempting the HiSET test, which costs $50. The closest test center to metro Denver is the Cheyenne campus of Laramie County Community College, where a third of the test takers this year came from Colorado, managers said.

“I just feel that it’s a little less intimidating than the actual GED,” said Lexis Hernandez, who flips through vocabulary flashcards in the backseat. “I feel a lot more confident studying this.”

Dropout rate impacts state

When Esparza got pregnant and dropped out, she joined more than 400,000 other adults in Colorado who didn’t finish high school.

Jackie Esparza holds a child as she babysits at her home in Thorton, Colo., on Aug. 6, 2015. Jackie dropped out of high school when she had a son and studied to earn a high school equivalency degree. Changes to the GED test in Colorado two years ago have led people to take alternate exams like the HiSet, but the closest place to take that test for metro Denver residents is Wyoming.

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Jackie Esparza holds a child as she babysits at her home in Thorton, Colo., on Aug. 6, 2015. Jackie dropped out of high school when she had a son and studied to earn a high school equivalency degree. Changes to the GED test in Colorado two years ago have led people to take alternate exams like the HiSet, but the closest place to take that test for metro Denver residents is Wyoming.

Even though the state has more college graduates than the national average, one in 10 adults have no high school diploma or equivalent certificate. Without such credentials, they are cut off from trade schools, college and many well-paying jobs.

Women and minorities are most impacted. High schools in Colorado fail to graduate Latino and black students at higher rates than whites. Almost half of Latino students don’t graduate from high schools in Colorado’s top 20 school districts, according to an I-News analysis of racial disparity in education called Standing in the Gap. The rate for black and white students is 70 and 85 percent, respectively.

In Colorado, median earnings for women without a high school education were around $15,000 a year in 2013, according to the American Community Survey. For men it was around $25,000.

Esparza wanted to aim higher for herself. She has dreams like studying criminal justice in college and volunteering in Africa. Esparza studied for the GED for more than a year and passed one subject test, science. She took the language arts section three times and was a few points away from passing, but almost ready to give up.

“I would just think to myself, like what am I going to do with my life?” she said.

Esparza started looking for jobs, but found nothing satisfying.

“I don’t want to keep working at Panda Express and stuff like that,” she said. “I don’t want that for my life.”

State data suggest that more people are discouraged from completing the GED since the test was rewritten, according to an I-News analysis of Colorado Department of Education data. From 2011-2013, 77 percent of testers in Colorado completed all subject areas of the test after they took at least one. In 2014 and 2015,  the number dropped to 52 percent of testers who went on to complete all parts of the test.

Jackie Esparza, 19, left, studies for the Jackie Esparza, 19, left, studied for the HiSET test, a high school diploma equivalency exam, with a tutor at Hope House on Aug. 5, 2015. The agency provides services to help those without a high school degree, like Esparza, earn an equivalent. Changes to the GED test in Colorado two years ago have led people to take alternate exams like the HiSet, but the closest place to take that test is Wyoming.

Joe Mahoney / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Jackie Esparza, 19, left, studied for the HiSET test, a high school diploma equivalency exam, with a tutor at Hope House on Aug. 5, 2015. The agency provides services to help those without a high school degree, like Esparza, earn an equivalent. Changes to the GED test in Colorado two years ago have led people to take alternate exams like the HiSet, but the closest place to take that test is Wyoming.

The number of people passing the test has also plummeted. On average, 211 people a week in Colorado passed the GED from 2011 to 2013. Now the number of people passing has dropped 75 percent to about 52 people a week in 2014 and the first 10 months of 2015.

As of October, 2,276 people passed the GED in Colorado this year. In the three years before the test changed, an average of 10,949 people a year passed the test.

The state is not keeping up with the number of students who drop out of high school, or with the needs of business for high school-educated workers, said Shirley Penn, former adult educator and president of the Colorado Adult Education Professional Association.

Penn is a member of a community  task force lobbying the Department of Education to offer alternatives to the GED.

“That has a huge impact on our state economically,” Penn said. “I think it hurts business and industry and I think it hurts the families because they’re stuck at that low income.”

The state is reviewing alternatives to the GED because its contract with the test’s vendor is set to expire in 2016, said Misti Ruthven, director of post-secondary readiness at the Department of Education.

The Department of Education asked developers of high school equivalency tests to submit proposals for implementation in Colorado. The department has received a few responses and will pass along the information to the State Board of Education for its meeting December 9-10, she said.

The number of test takers also dropped the last time the test changed in 2002, Ruthven said.

That year 11,216 people took and 6,967 people passed the test in Colorado, official GED data show. After the recent GED revision, 4,313 people took and 1,577 people passed the test in 2014.

For its part, the department couldn’t voice an opinion about the falling numbers.

“It’s very difficult to make comparisons from when the test changed and before that because we know it is a very different landscape and environment,” Ruthven said.

The state Board of Education is open to having multiple testing options, chairman Steve Durham said.

“The general feeling is that competitive options are a positive thing,” he said.

Alternative tests to the GED are “less rigorous,” said CT Turner, head of government relations for the GED Testing Service. He is concerned students will pass an alternative to the GED test and get a certificate but be unable to obtain higher degrees because they lack the necessary education.

“The preparation is what’s really important,” Turner said.

Third time a charm

Once Esparza arrives at the test center, she fumbles through her bag for notes and reviews facts from the Industrial Revolution.

“Pray for me!” she pleads as the disappears into the test room. An hour later, she’s disappointed. Esparza failed the social studies test by one point.

Jackie Esparza frowns as she discusses failing the social studies component of the HiSET test -- an equivalency exam for a high school degree -- at Laramie County Community College, in Cheyenne on Sept. 10, 2014. She was successful when she took the test again. Changes to the GED test in Colorado two years ago have led people to take alternate exams like the HiSet, but the closest place to take that test is Wyoming.

Anna Boiko Weyrauch / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Jackie Esparza frowns as she discusses failing the social studies component of the HiSET test — an equivalency exam for a high school degree — at Laramie County Community College, in Cheyenne on Sept. 10, 2014. She was successful when she took the test again. Changes to the GED test in Colorado two years ago have led people to take alternate exams like the HiSet, but the closest place to take that test is Wyoming.

“I wasn’t even that confident about history,” she said, frowning.

Still, Esparza returned a third time to Wyoming and retook the test.

On October 22 she donned a cap and gown and processed to Pomp and Circumstance. The organization that helped her study for her high school equivalency certificate and paid for the tests, Westminster-based Hope House of Colorado, held a graduation ceremony for her and four other young women.

“I’m really excited because I’m moving on with my life,” she said after the ceremony.

Esparza has already applied to four colleges.

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