Kathryn Thompson loves baking cakes, especially for a special group of people in her life – high school equivalency graduates.
“I bake a chocolate cake for every student who receives a certificate,” said Thompson. “We put them in a cap and gown, invite their families and have a celebration. This class is the beginning of the next chapter of their life.”
Thompson is the executive director of the Tarrant Literacy Coalition in Fort Worth, Texas. Her organization works to educate the adults of the Tarrant County area who lack sufficient literacy skills to succeed in the job market.
The organization was founded in 2009 after a community meeting established that there was a growing need for adult literacy services in the area.
“Initially our job was simply to train other people on how to provide literacy instruction,” Thompson said. “We recognized not many people were doing high school equivalency classes here in our community, most of the organizations were only teaching ESL classes.”
In an effort to increase the opportunities for the adult learners, the organization got involved teaching high school equivalency classes in 2011, which in turn made Thompson a very busy baker.
It just became a tradition,” said Thompson about her homemade cakes. “I’ve baked dozens and dozens of cakes. I’ve lost track.
However, in 2014, a new version of the GED test was released after the rights to the test were purchased by Pearson and managed by the newly formed GED Testing Services. This new version would only be offered via computer and doubled in price.
Thompson would not bake a cake for 18 months.
She saw many features of the new GED test as unnecessary obstacles to her students. Not only did the steep price increase serve as a barrier to her students, but now the test was administered via computer, which many of her students would not be comfortable testing on since they didn’t have regular access to computers in their daily lives.
These obstacles motivated Thompson to begin looking for alternatives to the new GED test, which is how she discovered the HiSET exam.
“I met someone from HiSET, and it was clear that the test had been designed with the end user in mind,” Thompson said. “The very things I had on my list that I felt were obstacles for my students under the GED, those obstacles were not an issue with the HiSET.”
You could tell that the test was created to measure what the employers and educators want us to measure, but it serves the people it was meant to serve – the students.
In 2014, the HiSET exam became one of the first alternative high school equivalency tests offered in the United States. Like the GED test, HiSET exam scores are recognized by states and the federal government to earn a state-issued credential, used for college admissions, job applications or for U.S. military enlistment.
Unlike the GED test, the HiSET exam is offered on paper or computer giving test takers the choice in how they take the exam. Also, the HiSET exam is approximately half the cost of the GED test.
She knew her organization had to lead the charge to help bring the HiSET exam to Texas.
In April 2015, Thompson travelled to Austin to offer her testimony to the Texas State Board of Education and ask them to consider offering alternative tests for Texans to earn the state’s high school equivalency certificate.
The State Board of Education agreed to hold a public hearing to give an opportunity for those impacted by test offerings a chance to be heard. In July 2015, The Tarrant Literacy Coalition rented a passenger van and transported 17 students and volunteers to testify about the impact of offering only a single high school equivalency exam in the state of Texas.
“Although each individual who testified was only given 3 minutes, in many cases, the board members held over the speaker to ask questions afterward,” Thompson said. “Major media outlets across the state covered the hearing, and one of my students’ picture and story appeared the next day in a lead story in the Austin-American Statesman and the San Antonio News Express. The Houston Chronicle followed, and the story was picked up on the wire. It appeared in many major and smaller market newspapers all across the state.”
A few days later, the Board of Education approved a motion to open the contract for high school equivalency testing in Texas to any provider. Thompson and her colleagues were ecstatic, but she knew there was still going to be a long transition process before her students were able to take the HiSET exam in Texas.
After some research, Thompson discovered that the state of Oklahoma offered the HiSET exam with no residency requirement, so she started the “Get There Sooner” fundraiser.
“We were waiting, and everything moves so slowly,” Thompson said. “So we came up with this idea to take our students over to Oklahoma, the Sooner State, so our students could go ahead and take their test. We didn’t want to wait.”
After raising nearly $5,000, Thompson and the Tarrant Literacy Coalition began taxiing students from Fort Worth, Texas to Ardmore, Oklahoma to earn their high school equivalency certificate through the HiSET exam. Several of the Tarrant Literacy Coalition’s students completed their certificate in Oklahoma while others began the test in Oklahoma and later finished to earn their credential in Texas.
There are currently 34 Texas-based test centers offering the HiSET exam; including ones in Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.
“We’re not teaching people to read books, we’re about helping people to find opportunities, to change their life.”
When my students can’t pass the test because somebody has put in arbitrary obstacles, like taking it on a computer and they can’t access one. We can’t stand for that,” Thompson said.
I see a high school equivalency degree as a doorway to the next opportunity. It’s amazing how quickly it can open the door for them.”
Thompson knows that door to opportunity isn’t just opening for her students, but for their children, too.
“All of the studies show that a high school equivalency degree is also going to change their children’s lives,” Thompson said. “The number one indicator of their kid’s finishing school is if their parents finished school.”
Though the task of earning a high school equivalency credential rests on the individual, there are others, like Thompson and the Tarrant Literacy Coalition, who are advocating, motivating and supporting them along the way.
“Every time I bake a cake they’re grinning from ear, because they know they just did something huge and it’s going to change the way they live,” Thompson said.