1 of 3
LaGuardia Community College
Contextual education program at La Guardia College in New York offers one widely respected model for moving beyond the exam.

Modupe Marks was a 37-year-old Nigerian immigrant who ran her own spa and hair salon business in New York City when the recession hit in 2008. As her business tanked, she was left dangling without skills or credentials suited to the new economy.

With little formal education and no high school diploma, Marks took what work she could find, delivering newspapers into the wee hours of the morning. After she finished with one paper in Manhattan, she crossed the river for another delivery schedule in New Jersey.

"I've always worked," Marks said. "When you really want to change in life, you make a way."

The grueling schedule was not fun, but it motivated her. "That was one of the most painful times of my life,” she said of the collapse of her business and her, “but I wouldn't change anything because that challenged me to go back to school."

Not long ago, Marks would have likely ended up in an adult education class aimed almost exclusively at preparing her to pass the graduate equivalency diploma, or GED test. That test preparation would have done little to guide her to a job or further education.

SEE MORE: How to save 145,243 lives with high school diplomas

Instead, Marks found her way to the innovative pre-college bridge program at La Guardia College in New York, part of the City University of New York system.

Marks went to La Guardia three days a week for four hours a day, a total of 12 hours a week for three months, taking courses built around GED-type skills but with content centered on the medical professions. After knocking out the GED, she moved on to an associate's degree at La Guardia and this fall will finish her bachelor's at Hunter College, also part of the CUNY system.

Modupe Marks was one of roughly 25 million adult Americans who lack a high school diploma or equivalent, according to the Census Bureau. And that missing piece of paper often stands in the way of getting a job or getting promoted in a currrent workplace.

Ever since World War II, when the program originated to help servicemen who had shipped off to combat, the GED has been a mainstay for adults who missed or dropped out of high school.

But things are changing, fast. The old GED was recently replaced by a more costly and complicated for-profit program. Meanwhile, two new alternatives to the GED emerged, and states are embracing different combinations of these three options.

Meanwhile, career and education experts have realized that a high school equivalency is no longer enough — just as an actual high school diploma is not enough. The measure of adult education, they say, now must be its success in pushing students onward.

“The diploma is not sufficient,” said Amy Dalsimer, director of pre-college academic programming at La Guardia College. “With economic changes and the up-scaling of work expectations, we need a high school completion model that can be a springboard to career readiness or post-secondary schooling.”

Adult ed chaos

With the Common Core upending high school curriculum, the GED has changed to match the new standards, partnering with Pearson, a major books and tests publisher. It became a for-profit test, raising its difficulty and doubling its cost.

When the GED re-launched last year, its tougher format and higher cost spooked advocates for the disadvantaged. Responding to those fears, several states partnered with competitors to the new GED. Suddenly what was a calm and sleepy backwater of adult education became a hotly contested policy space.

There are now three competing exams, and all three are owned by major corporations. But the GED's new competitors cost less and have approached the Common Core changes more gradually.

Lurking behind the HSE are persistent doubts about the efficacy of the old GED system, particularly whether it actually improves job prospects.

One of the sharpest such critiques comes from Nobel laureate James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago.

Heckman has argued that the HSE (formerly GED) testing system offers dubious benefits to those who achieve it and may actually seduce some who could have graduated into a seemingly equivalent but easier alternative.

Teaching someone to take an HSE exam cannot make up for key variables learned in school, Heckman and his co-authors wrote in one paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Handicaps such as "lack of persistence, low self-esteem, low self-efficacy and high propensity for risky behavior" are far more damaging than any skills deficit, they argue.

Therein lies the dilemma of adult education, which all too often, critics like Heckman argue, is reduced to little more than prepping students to take a test that is a poor substitute for actual learning.

The adult dilemma

Concerns like these are one reason that the La Guardia program Marks attended is garnering attention and, increasingly, emulation.

One of the founders of that program is Dalsimer. Eight years ago, Dalsimer and her colleagues set out to build an HSE program that puts students on career and content tracks as they prepare for the exam. Context gives students a scaffold to put their learning on, Dalsimer said, as well as build skills that will carry over to their next steps.

Marks, for example, followed the health track, which combined math and English with biology and other coursework on health care careers. Students are required to come for a minimum of 10 hours a week. About half of them are custodial parents of minor children, and the vast majority below the federal poverty line. Half of them are working full-time.

“It’s a huge sacrifice for them, a courageous thing,” Dalsimer said.

Most of Dalsimer’s students are able to take the exam after 15 weeks, but a subset will be held back because their basic skills need more development. They will stay for a second term, receive more individualized instruction, and usually shift to a different contextual track. “They’ll be repeating the skills but not the content,” Dalsimer said.

Proof points

The La Guardia system works, said a recent controlled study by MDRC, one of the leading companies assessing the outcomes of social programs. Students in the La Guardia bridge program were much more likely to be stuck with the preparation class, twice as likely to pass the exam, and three times as likely to go on to college.

The contextual approach is fairly unique to La Guardia, or at least it was. “The field is changing a lot,” Dalsimer said. After being repeatedly approached by adult education systems in other states to share their methods, La Guardia two years ago created the College and Career Pathways Institute. It has now worked with 19 states to create contextualized adult education.

“There are an enormous number of people who are now beyond the K-12 system, who aged out, dropped out or were pushed out,” Dalsimer said. “We have to take a career sector approach to that challenge, teaching reading and writing in context of a job sector or a discipline.”

Dalsimer sees the HSE exam as necessary but not sufficient for the millions who lack a high school credential. “Without that exam,” she said, “every opportunity for further training for certification and for colleges is foreclosed.”

Moving on

Marks is a good illustration of the La Guardia approach in the sense that at no point did she view the HSE as an end in itself. She approached it as just one hurdle on a long path to her objective.

On the other hand, Marks is less typical because she is a driven immigrant, rather than a high school dropout, and she amply demonstrated those elusive character qualities Heckman prizes.

Marks said she had had little formal education in Nigeria and none after moving to the U.S. in 2001. To make up for this, she had to spend extra time in class preparing, even though she was usually tired from her work schedule. She would stick around after class and seek out instructors with questions.

"I was going to do it even if it was going to cost me some sleep," she said.

In the bridge to health program at La Guardia, Marks learned math, writing and communication skills in a medical context. Along with math and reading, she learned biology, medical ethics, patient care issues and medical vocabulary.

"The people at La Guardia see beyond the HSE to what you will need once you get into college," Marks said.

After her HSE in the La Guardia pre-college program, Marks completed her associate's degree at La Guardia and is now at Hunter College, also in the CUNY system, where she will finish her B.S. in psychology next year.

Marks plans to do a master's degree at Hofstra and hopes to finish a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology. She aims to work as a consultant, ideally working for a state or city small business agency to help small business owners like she once was navigate the complexities of running their own business.

“I’m still a business woman at heart, she said. “If I had had better advice at the time, I could have made it.” But in her case, she’s glad it worked out the way it did.

Related links:

U.S. high school graduation rates are up, but there's still progress to be made

New GED test sends failure rates spiraling

How to find the right school for your kid