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The number of Americans passing the GED is dropping rapidly. Why? And who's left behind?

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The science section pushes students further too. One sample question asks the test taker to interpret, via an equation, whether energy is stored, created or produced when glucose, water, oxygen and carbon dioxide are combined. The old test, McLaughlin says, required the students to know some of the elements on the periodic table, but did not have them analyze how the elements reacted with each other.

And in the writing portion of the test, the previous test asked for one personal essay, the topic of which might be: "Who is someone you think is successful and why?" The purpose of the essay was to see if the respondent knew how to put nouns and verbs and prepositions together in proper order. In other words, the test didn't really assess what you said, just how clearly you said it.

But the new test flips that around. There are now two essays, and they are graded not on grammar but on reasoning. For example, one of the sample questions in the language portion asks the tester to read two essays on daylight savings time – one in favor, one against – and then write an essay about which one is better and why. Another example is writing an essay about the importance of the concept of "sustainability" within the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Another asks a test taker whether a school's decision to expel a student who refuses to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance is covered by the freedom of religion or freedom of speech, and how Thomas Jefferson's writing fits into the question at hand. The essay will be judged, in part, on "your own knowledge of the enduring issue and the circumstances surrounding the case to support your analysis."

Grading is focused on analysis and interpretation rather than sentence structure, and the GED website says a passing essay might exhibit "draft writing." "We do not hold test-takers to a standard of very formal conventions at all," it says. "Rather, we understand that they have minimal time for proofreading and we can accept diction that is significantly more casual than, for example, what might be required on a résumé cover letter. The language requirements are not as high as 'Edited American English.'"

So the test measures knowledge of how many tiny cell hairs can fit on a slide, the energy production of an equation, Thomas Jefferson's analysis of a West Virginia court case, and interpretation of the concept of environmental sustainability. All in four test sections that have to be completed in about seven hours. On a computer. By people who may have limited computer skills and no spell check.

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