With three of the five subject tests passed, Gerald Elling of Hastings is past the halfway point to obtaining his GED. He hopes to take and pass the writing and math sections, the two hardest for most students — and he wants to do it now.

“I heard that the tests are going to get really hard next year, and I struggle already with reading and writing,” he said. “It’s easier for me to do stuff on paper than on a computer.”

A more challenging, computer-based GED test will roll out in January — the tests are taken on paper now — and students who are partway to getting their GED at that point will have to start over. Throughout the Twin Cities suburbs, educators that prepare students to take the test are busy learning about the new system while preparing for a rush of students trying to finish up in time.

“It’s hard when they have to do that cutoff,” said Eric Lind, Adult Basic Education (ABE) program manager for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district. “It’s understandable, but it will be a challenge for people who don’t quite make it to have to start over.”

Because taking all five subject area tests takes more than seven hours, taking one or two at a time is “very common,” said Kathleen Johnson, program administrator for South Suburban ABE, which serves northern Dakota County.

Thousands of students across Minnesota have passed one or more of the tests, but not all five — so they don’t have their GED.

Finishing can take months or years, Lind added, depending on students’ skill level, first language, motivation and the other things they have going on in their lives.

Johnson said her program has nearly 200 students who, having taken at least one test in the past few years but not finished their GED, “will all stand to lose something,” she said.

When the previous version of the test was phased out in 2002, testing centers in Minnesota experienced a 30 percent increase in test takers in the year before the old test expired, said Jim Colwell, GED administrator for the Minnesota Department of Education. “You’d expect to see something like that [again].”

Emily Watts, ABE program supervisor for Metro North ABE, which serves mostly Anoka County, said she’s already seen “a nice steady flow of students who feel the urgency” to finish in 2013.

Other areas of the metro area are anticipating a rush.

“I really think this summer will be a big time for every program. I think it’s going to be busy, trying to get ready for the fall ... to get students who want to take the old test ready and to prepare students for the new one,” said Tamra Sieve, director of Metro South ABE, which serves southern Hennepin County.

A necessary update

The new test was developed by the GED Testing Center, which is composed of a board of directors from the American Council on Education, the nonprofit association that has been the sole provider of the test since the 1940s, and Pearson, the educational publishing company that was brought on board to help update it in 2011.

“This is the last of the large-scale standardized testing programs that’s going to be computerized,” Colwell said.

The new test will include content that aligns with national high school standards and is designed to better demonstrate students’ college and career readiness. While the old test had five content area tests, reading and writing will be combined in the new version.

Colwell noted that there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the test, testing centers and how students will be able to pay for it. Tests will become more expensive; they now range from $50 to $120, but new tests will all be $120.

Watts worries about how the tests’ computer format could affect students.

“Our concern, at least in the short term, is that we’ll have a group of students who, in addition to academic skills, will need to learn keyboarding skills as well,” she said.

Some students, in particular immigrants or older adults who didn’t grow up with computers, may struggle, especially because the test is timed, said Craig Anderson, an instructor with Metro South ABE.

The new content, too, may be difficult for many students, said Gaby Postiglione, Hastings ABE coordinator.

“They’re telling us the content is going to be more rigorous and complex. Students will need to be able to read and interpret multiple texts,” Postiglione said.

But in some ways, the new test may benefit students, said Lind.

“We’re trying to get our students to not just pass the GED, but to get ready to go to college afterward,” he said.

Watts agrees. “We’re hearing from employers and community partners that students need computer skills.”

Spreading the word

To get the word out to students that their old tests will expire, GED staffers have been sending letters and making phone calls, Watts and Johnson said.

Other GED teachers, like Clarice Grabau with Dakota Prairie ABE, have started a Facebook page, connected with community organizations and advertised in newsletters to spread the news.

The Department of Education also will roll out an advertising campaign beginning in late spring, Colwell said.

With eight months before the new test comes, there’s still time for students to finish up.

“The change is coming. Don’t wait until December 2013 to come in and test. There are lots of programs in the metro area that can help assist students on that journey,” Sieve said.