It was 10 p.m. when the lights finally went out at Digit All Systems on New Year's Eve. The last of the day's 89 test-takers packed up their stuff, and so did Joseph H. Sutton III and Mickey Mason.
"I think I got home at 11:15, 11:30-I had just enough time to watch the ball drop with my family," says Sutton, the nonprofit test-administration company's executive director. "Mickey was going to a party."
Sutton, Mason, and other Digit All employees had spent all of December working every day, most days from 9 a.m. to after 8 p.m., making sure everyone who wanted to could have a chance to pass the General Education Development test to get their certificate of high school equivalency (GED). "Those who fail, we tried to register them for [a retest] the next day-people were crying for joy or crying for tears," Sutton says, noting that not everyone passes the test. "You really could say you made a difference. We had a guy who had been trying to pass since 2002. He could not pass the math. He finally passed it on New Year's Eve."
Ironically, Digit All's heroics were made necessary in part by the computer-based testing technology the company specializes in-technology that is supposed to make life cheaper and more convenient for everyone but, in this case, did the opposite.
That last frantic night of 2013 had its roots in a little-noticed joint venture two years ago that turned the GED into a for-profit business, more than doubling the test price and costing Maryland taxpayers half a million dollars this year-and probably every year going forward.
In March 2011, the nonprofit GED Testing Service of the American Council on Education (ACE) partnered with Pearson, the publishing giant and the world's largest administrator of high-stakes electronic tests. The nonprofit ACE had been operating the GED test for more than 60 years with little change, but Pearson-which first got involved with ACE as a contractor conducting a study about paper-based versus computer-based testing-had big plans: phase out the paper-based test, create a new, computer-only test, and increase the per-test price from $45 to $120.
"As the world's largest education and testing company, it was quite clear to us that we could not sit on the sidelines," Randy Trask, a senior vice president for Pearson, told reporters during a conference call with reporters on the day the deal was announced, according to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The planned changes set off alarm bells in several states. Boston GED trainers worried the new test, based on the Common Core standards roiling the world of primary education, would be too hard, The New York Times reported. A May 2012 report to the Virginia legislature laid out the broad policy issues: "The GED tests will be revised to reflect the Common Core State Standards and will begin to be delivered in a computer-based format only beginning in 2014," that state's Adult Education and Literacy Advisory Committee told the VA State Board of Education. "At that time, the cost to take the test will increase significantly. Also of importance is the issue of access to GED testing sites. GED testing will be available at Pearson VUE/GED testing centers only. Consequently, the number of testing sites in the Commonwealth will decrease significantly in the short term."
The huge price increase would be mainly invisible to the people taking the test. States have long subsidized the test fees-and subsidized the process by which the cheaper paper tests were administered, for instance, by making state-operated community colleges available and staffed as testing sites. GED Testing Service says that the extra services folded into the higher test price make it a financial wash-or even savings-for states. "It's kind of comparing apples to oranges," C.T. Turner, a spokesperson for GED Testing Services. "In computer-based [testing], the state basically has no outlay."
Maryland legislators appropriated $505,000 to the State Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (DLLR)'s Fiscal 2014 budget "to keep the cost of taking the GED exam affordable for the nearly 10,000 Marylanders who annually seek the credential," DLLR said in its year-end report.
That subsidy began on Jan. 2; the $150 cost to take the earlier test on computer-more than triple the on-paper price-was not subsidized from the time the state phased out the paper test last fall until the test was discontinued on the last day of 2013.
But while the phase-out of the paper and pencil test was an opportunity for computerized test administrators like Digit All Systems to expand its operations, it would prove a huge headache for the company (and the test-takers) because no other company is doing this in central Maryland.
"It's great to be the only person giving the test," says Lance Lucas, Digit All's founder and CEO. "But it shows how systemically . . . there needs to be a greater understanding of how this system works."
Digit All had asked DLLR to make the company the test administrator back in 2011, Sutton says, "but I don't think they really understood what they were doing . . . so we really only started testing GED in July and August, and about that time they said they were phasing this [paper-based] test out."
He says the company administered 304 GED testers in November, as people who had been working on the old test-which had five separate "modules" based on subject matter such as reading, social studies, and math-began to realize that they would have to finish the whole test by year's end, as Pearson's new four-module test would not be compatible with or comparable to the old, and would cover different material.
They would also have to pony up the higher price to take the electronic version.
"That was the real kicker-because they were ending the exam on December 2013-they passed all these exemptions," Sutton says. "So test-takers were allowed to retake the test more times, or in shorter time periods, than had been previously allowed.
"Once they said that-that started the flood," Sutton says. "Literally, our phones were flooded. You could not keep the phone on the hook long enough, as soon as you set it down it would ring-people calling for information, to get exams. So by first week of December, I said, 'Whoa, this doesn't look good. We can only test 20 people at a time.'"
Digit All-which also offers technical training and testing for state and local governments-"decided to put everything else on hold" while it expanded its GED business. They brought in extra computers, an extra file server, more internet connections to handle the load, and rearranged the furniture to comply with the strict standards required of GED testing protocols, expanding to 40 testers at a tine, Sutton says. The business's old hours of 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. were expanded to 9 a.m. until 8 p.m.
They stayed open on holidays and weekends.
"It was truly intense," Sutton says.
Digit All in Baltimore City was the last GED testing center in the country open on the deadline day, Sutton says. Pearson pulled the old test "off the server" right after the last tester in Baltimore logged off. The company tested 894 GED candidates in December 2013. It did not reopen until Jan. 7, he says.
"You and your staff are to be commended for going well beyond the call of duty," wrote DLLR's GED administrator, Molly Dugan, in an email to Mason and other Digit All staff. "Without your service, Maryland GED® candidates would not have had the opportunities to succeed that you provided. We and literally hundreds of candidates are indebted to you."
When the test was available on paper as well as computer, there were at least five locations in Baltimore where one could take the test. Today, Digit All remains the only GED testing center in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. "I know the goal was to have at least as many testing centers at launch or shortly after as we had on paper," says Turner. "I know that there's an effort from the top of DLLR to make sure there are enough testing centers across the state."
Dugan did not return City Paper's calls.