The Downtown Women's Center offers preparation for the GED, which… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
At age 59, Rita Kowalski decided she wanted to use the computer for more than emailing her kids and looking up salmon recipes.
Forty-two years after she dropped out of high school to start a family, Kowalski, now a grandmother of 12, is using it to get her high school equivalency credential.
"I perked up because I can look straight at the computer," Kowalski said. "My attention span is shorter with books for some reason, but I can look at the screen for hours and it doesn't seem to bother me."
After decades of pencil-to-paper test sheets, California this year became the latest state to launch the General Educational Development test, known as the GED, in a computer format. The GED Testing Service, the private organization that administers the exam, rolled out the computer-based format in 2012 to help more adults earn a GED credential and to prepare for the launch of the new test in 2014.
The newest iteration of the 71-year-old test will focus more on job readiness than high school equivalency, and the new test-taking format will also support that initiative. It will measure "career and college-readiness skills" with fewer multiple-choice questions and more content-based answers.
"It will allow people to be more prepared [for the test and the workforce] because everything is going the way of computers," said Alfred Ramirez, GED chief examiner at Glendale Community College. Ramirez said he is in the process of applying to Pearson VUE, the test's vendor, for the new online certification.
Although the new test format still requires students to go to designated testing centers, it follows a larger trend toward computerized and online education. The number of online courses is growing, and the courses are gaining credibility at the higher education level. Last week, administrators of the ACT college entrance exam announced they were initiating a computer-based test in 2015.
Computerized testing "will provide a better experience for students and meet them in a world where they're already living," said Ed Colby, spokesman for ACT Inc. "They're already used to tapping on tablet screens."
More than 20% of California's adults — 5.5 million people — lack a high school diploma or a GED credential, and testing officials hope to appeal to them with online registration and a more flexible test schedule with the computerized format. On computer, students can take one or all five of the test sections at a time, as opposed to a two-day timed testing schedule if taken on paper.
For example, students can take the reading portion of the test and return at their convenience to take the math portion, Ramirez said. The process might be more appealing to someone who has a job or family, he said.
An analysis completed by the testing service found that adults testing on computer were 59% more likely to retake a failed test instead of giving up and dropping out of the program.
The analysis also found that the pass rate was higher for those who took the test on the computer (88%) versus on paper (72%), which some say is a result of the technology's self¿paced testing experience.
"The test anxiety doesn't seem as high," said Evelyn Lenton, GED chief examiner at the Antelope Valley Adult School. "Some people think they won't be as successful because they can't type fast, but then I'll see students shaking their hands [during the written essays] as if they hadn't written that much in their life."
Kowalski didn't let her "hunt-and-peck" typing style deter her from attempting the computerized test and practiced daily, even while sending text messages.
"With texting you get lazy with spelling and punctuation, and I want to do it well as practice for the test," Kowalski said, adding that she spelled out words like "you" and "are" instead of using their one-letter equivalents.
Once she logged in and began to take the test at the Antelope Valley Adult School, she tuned out all other distractions, except for the typing of fellow students. The testing room includes partitions between desks, and a monitor in the room deters cheating.
"You can hear people typing, but it was not annoying because it's gentle and the sound fades into the background," she said. When she finished the test's reading section, she left her station, unlike paper testers who have to wait until their time is up.
"Self-fulfillment is something I never noticed before; I was content and successful in raising my children," Kowalski said. "Now I can concentrate on me."
The overall online testing experience was great, Kowalski said. Her nervousness quickly dissolved once she sat at her computer for the exam, and thanks to the immediate score results, was able to call her grandchildren with the good news.
"I got 640" points out of 800, she said. Students need 410 to pass the section and a 450 average to pass the entire test. "I was so proud, I called my family and told them," Kowalski said. "It feels good, it really does.
"I think I'm going to be a perpetual student."
She plans on taking the other four sections in the coming weeks because the testing service is offering a free re-take if students fail any part of the computer exam during the month of May. After that, she's planning to look into nursing programs.