The clock is ticking for Jordan Carlin and hundreds of others who are working to earn GEDs in western South Dakota.
Last week, the 23-year-old man learned that the American Council on Education will introduce a new General Education Development, or GED high school equivalency test program, in 2014, which is expected to be tougher than the current version.
Usually students can take as long as they need to finish the five courses required to earn a GED, but students who never earned a high school diplomas will have to start all over yet again if they don’t finish the program this year.
"I'm a little worried because I'm just starting out, and I'm a little slower than others because I have reading problems," said Carlin, who began taking courses two weeks ago.
Carlin sought help at the Career Learning Center of the Black Hills in Rapid City when he decided that he wanted to pursue a career. He spent his high school years moving often and after leaving home at a young age, he never finished school.
Now, he takes classes at the center, a bustling hive of classrooms, offices and computer labs. The welcoming atmosphere is designed to ease the nerves of people seeking help for the first time.
Adult education coordinator Renee Peterson said the new test is expected to require a higher level of critical thinking and writing skills. The test will also be available only by computer. As a result, she expects students will have to study and prepare more for the next generation of GED tests that cover mathematical reasoning, reasoning through language arts, science and social studies.
"The new one will be working a lot more on writing and thinking," Peterson said. "Instead of making sure they just know how to construct a sentence or a paragraph, it will ask them to read something and compare and contrast, and I'm thinking that is really going to be more difficult."
For those reasons, the Career Learning Center and other GED testing centers are now reaching out and searching for individuals who have only partially completed the tests, which were last updated in 2002.
"We've even tried looking on Facebook, but we're teachers, and we just don't have the time," Peterson said.
She said about 200 people have lost touch or moved away from the Black Hills, where the Career Learning Center has branches in every community. Last week, the center started putting flyers all over town urging people who have started their GED to come in to finish up.
"If they have to start all over, they might just give up," Peterson said.
The American Council on Education announced the new version of the GED tests earlier this year. The organization said the restructured test will better prepare students and make them more competitive with traditional high school students when they go to college or pursue a career.
"We've known it was coming," Peterson said. "The GED versions usually run about 10 years. They need to update it to meet the needs of employers and colleges."
The GED program was launched after World War II for soldiers who did not graduate from high school. The first GED test program was launched in 1942 and then updated in 1978, 1988 and 2002. More than 800,000 people take the test annually, according to ACE, which boasts more than 18 million GEDs awarded since the beginning of the program.
Peterson said the local center administered 1,330 tests in 2012 and awarded 365 certificates.
The average length of time it takes to finish the program is two to six months, according to local testing centers. The program requires students to take classes, and pretests and spend time one on one with instructors before the final test can be taken.
Cyrinthia Brave Heart hopes to earn her GED this year. The 38-year-old mother of three teenage boys started the program over a year ago. She sees the GED as part of a path to a better life.
"I want to get a higher paying job so I don't have to live paycheck to paycheck," Brave Heart said.
She finished her first four exams almost simultaneously, but a fear of math held her back. Brave Heart set a goal to graduate by June, so she is now attending classes daily to take the final test in mathematics.
Success on her tests and in studying algebra has instilled a new sense of purpose in Brave Heart, which she hopes to pass on to her children.
"I look forward to their accomplishments and their graduation," Brave Heart said. "I really want them to understand that to continue learning throughout life is very important."