Their academic climb could slide into nothingness at the end of the year.
The five-subject national exam is getting an overhaul Jan. 1.
That gives less than six months for those hoping to pass the old version.
If they don't pass each and every subject between now and then, they must start from scratch with a new set of exams that are expected to be harder.
There is urgency but not panic these days on the second floor of Everett Community College's Baker Hall, where two rooms of mainly 20-somethings are trying to make up for lost time and missed opportunity.
One morning last week, EvCC instructor Jennifer Jennings led her students through a multi-step math problem that involved credit cards, percentages and interest rates. For most of the students, math is their biggest obstacle between now and the new year deadline.
Jennings remembers the last time the GED was changed in 2001 and the long lines at the college's testing center.
"It was crazy," she said.
The General Education Development certificate was started in 1942 to allow returning World War II GIs to continue their education when they came home. It was designed to show that they had earned basic academic skills many consider the equivalent of a high school diploma. People not in the military were able to start taking the GED in 1947.
Roughly 20 million people have earned GEDs over the years.
With the change in exams approaching, test preparation programs, such as ones at Everett Community College, are bracing for heavy enrollment through the fall.
Lanora Toth, 21, attended five high schools, but didn't graduate. Life has been a struggle for the young mother who said she once held a cardboard sign at a street corner. It read, "Cold, homeless and hungry."
Her goal in pursuing her GED is simple: to provide a better home and set an example for her young child.
Classmate Vanessa Miller nodded as Toth spoke.
"I want to give my 1-year-old the life I never had," she said.
Skyy Sepulveda dropped out of Mountlake Terrace High School in her junior year when she fell hopelessly behind on credits. She took a GED class a year ago and didn't finish. It stung a bit to see her classmates earn their certificates and that has motivated her this time around.
She said she is studying more than ever.
"It's really nerve-wracking to get everything done," she said.
Since 2009, more than 3,900 people have gone through EvCC's GED programs and taken all or portions of the exam. More than 2,900 have passed.
Over the last four years alone, that leaves 1,016 others who must reach the finish line between now and Jan. 1 or start anew. Nationwide, there are about 1 million people whose scores could expire Jan. 1 under the new testing program.
"We want people to know that these changes are really happening and they are happening soon and to get all their ducks in a row," said Katie Jensen, EvCC's dean of basic and developmental education.
College officials are reaching out through fliers, letters, word of mouth and mention on the reader board at the college's Broadway entrance.
These days, GED testing is done by appointment and Jensen warns that prospective exam takers should not procrastinate getting ready.
"I think our testing times are going to fill up," she said.
Instead of five sections, the new GED test will be reconfigured into four: reasoning through language arts, mathematical reasoning, science and social studies. The existing stand-alone essay section will be folded into writing assessments within the language arts and social studies sections, It also will all be done on the computer.
Jessica Cleveland, 25, is a mother of three who quit school after the eighth grade. She hopes she never has to see the new GED exams.
"It scares me," she said. "I want to be done by then."
Cleveland has worked in coffee stands and at a pizza restaurant, but believes she needs a GED to get a foot in the door for better-paying opportunities.
"I want an education so my kids have a good role model to look up to, so they don't drop out of high school and can see where I went wrong," she said.
Devona Fields, 31, is married and has three children.
As they get older, she hopes to find a job to help with family expenses and figures a GED could be a big help.
Fields has passed two of the five GED exams.
Her husband, Wilson Fields, recently earned his GED and is taking pre-college math to prepare for college courses.
Wilson Fields tries to encourage Devona with each subject she passes.
Devona resists patting herself on the back.
She still must get through the math test, which gives her anxiety.
"I will cheer and celebrate when I have all the scores back," she said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; heraldnet.com.
About the GED
To learn more about GED preparation help at Everett Community College, call 425-388-9291 or email www.everettcc.edu/ged.
For opportunities at Edmonds Community College, call 425-670-1593 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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