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State tests computer GED exams

Five volunteers in the Garnet Career Center were the first people in West Virginia to take GED tests on a computer rather than by using pencil and paper.

Garnet is the first General Educational Development testing location in the state to offer a computer-based version of the test. West Virginia is only the 15th state to offer GED tests in electronic format.

The switch to computers at Garnet is part of a pilot program undertaken by the state Department of Education in conjunction with Pearson VUE, the company that operates the electronic version of the GED, and GED Testing Services, which actually creates the test.

"We're very excited because this is proof that we're being as progressive with adult education . . . as high school education," said Debra Kimbler, the state GED administrator with the West Virginia Department of Education.

The department has a goal of switching all GED testing in the state to the computer format by January 2013. That goal is part of a larger, national change to the GED itself, which is set for January 2014, at which point all GED tests must be taken on a computer, with a few exceptions.

When the new version of the test begins in 2014, all scores from the latest version of the GED will expire, and GED students must start over.

The GED is currently composed of five subject tests, which, if passed, certify that the student has high school-level skills. The 2014 version of the GED updates the test to adhere to the "Common Core Standards," which are national guidelines for high school education.

One issue with the electronic GED is that test-takers may not be as computer-savvy as current high school students.

Jim Vickers, who recently retired as principal at Garnet and is a proctor for the new GED, said all five of the students who took the test last Thursday passed, but they were young.

"A lot of our clientele is older . . . or out of education for a long time," Vickers said. "We're worried about their computer skills."

Garnet is helping to ease that problem through the incorporation of computer skills in its adult education program. In addition, West Virginia requires GED students to take a practice exam, which can be on a computer.

Kimbler said the practice test also helps students familiarize themselves with the format of the actual test. She said the computer skills needed for the exam are similar to those required by employers.

"(The test) is preparing them for the computer world," she said. "We have adult basic education that will prepare students to take the test."

Kimbler said an advantage of the electronic version of the GED is students will instantly know how they scored, and the test can also provide data on a student's strong and weak areas, which can in turn be used to help educate the student and plan career moves.

"I think that the major change is score reports," she said. "It lets (students) know their strengths in addition to areas where they need to . . . brush up on skills."

There is a testing fee for the GED, and the cost varies from state to state. Kimbler said in West Virginia, the current fee for all five tests is $50, but that fee will increase to $120 with the electronic version. A small part of that fee goes to the testing site, which pays for the proctors.

However, since 2008, state government has covered the cost, making the GED free for West Virginians. The state Legislature voted to continue to cover the test fee through the next fiscal year, which ends on June 30, 2013. The legislature may continue to cover the fee during the next legislative session.

Kimbler said the result of the test being free in West Virginia is dramatic. Among the state's 72 testing sites, 4,000 people took the test annually before the fee was covered. After the 2008 legislation, that number rose to 6,000.

"That's a good indication that our clientele can't afford the $120 fee," Kimbler said.

At Garnet, the facility had to pay $450 to upgrade to the electronic system, which includes the cost of equipment that allows electronic signatures and cameras that are placed at each computer.

The testing center's time as a pilot program will also help technology personnel learn how to set up computers and software properly for the test. The GED exams are not online exams and must be installed as software on the computer.

"We're trying to figure out what tech issues there are," said Mary Perdue, who is part of the technology team at Garnet. "Everything had to work with the testing company's setup."

Garnet was chosen to be the state's first pilot testing center after Vickers expressed interest to Kimbler. Vickers, who was still principal during the last school year, said Garnet wanted to prepare students for the workforce as best as possible.

"We want to provide as many services as we can," he said. "The GED falls in line with that."

Garnet had to apply to be a pilot location with the GED Testing Service and Pearson VUE. The new testing room has the capacity to test 20 students at once. Compared with the paper test, the computer system allows students to work ahead if they finish a section before the time limit for that section.

Now that the center is installed, it also can serve as a testing location for any of the other tests Pearson VUE manages, Vickers said.

The Department of Education does not plan to stop adding pilot programs with Garnet.

Kimbler said her office has sent checklists to other GED sites in the state to see what upgrades need to be made before all sites go electronic. If a site is ready to be added as an electronic testing facility before the January changeover, it may be added to the pilot program.

Kimbler's office also has sent about 10,000 letters to students currently taking the 2002 GED tests (the latest version), encouraging those students to finish their exam series before their scores expire in December 2013.

Once Garnet begins scheduling the computer GED test in August, students from anywhere can choose to take their exams there. Linda Berlin, option pathway coordinator for the state Department of Education, thinks the computer-based test is a great option for GED students.

"They really liked the computer," Berlin said. "They thought it was better than paper."

Contact writer Matt Murphy at 304-348-4886 or Follow him at


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