Did you know that obtaining your high school equivalency (HSE) is easier than ever in New York State? If you passed any of the New York State high school Regents Exams, you are one step closer to finishing the TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ and obtaining your HSE. New York also has some exciting new options for distance learning that give you even more flexibility on your path to a diploma. We heard from Mary Giardini, TASC Test Coordinator; Bethany Ruane, Workforce Development and Community Learning Program Specialist; and Dr. Melissa Rivers, Principal for CTE, Workforce Development, & Community Learning about these opportunities and more at the Cattaraugus-Allegany Board of Cooperative Educational Services (CABOCES) in New York State.
Can you tell us about CABOCES and the services you provide?
Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES provides oversight of three centers: the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Center at Olean, the CTE Center at Belmont, and the CTE Center at Ellicottville. We provide career and technical education for high school students and adults in over 20 fields, ranging from animal science to automotive technology, pre-engineering and CAD (computer-aided design), and our New Vision – Health Professions program. Like other BOCES in New York State, we provide support services for school districts in multiple areas, such as special education services, CTE, and instructional support, and technology supports for the 22 school districts we serve.
When someone comes to your center with the goal of earning their HSE, how do you assist them? What steps do they take?
Because our students come from many different levels and backgrounds, from having an IEP (Individualized Education Program) to leaving school because of something that happened years ago, our high school equivalency process can take a couple of different paths. With open enrollment, students have the option to take classes when it fits their schedule. Our community-based classes provide options for both daytime and evening classes based on what would work best for the student. Those are primarily for adults. We also have students who are under 21 who attend HSE classes at our CTE centers or take HSE classes through the CABOCES Big Picture Learning program. These students may also take CTE classes. One of the greatest opportunities is the bridge between the New York State Regents Exam and the TASC test. As stated before, if a student has passed a portion of their required Regents Exams, then they only need to pass the other portions of the TASC test to be successful and earn an HSE diploma.
So if someone passed certain subjects on the Regents Exam, those subjects are waived as a requirement for the TASC test?
Correct. That is new as of April of 2018 when the New York State Board of Regents made this important ruling.
Have you had a lot of students take advantage of that?
Yes, a lot have taken advantage of it – both adults and high-school-age students. The Regents Exam is considered the New York State benchmark for a student graduating from high school for certain areas. It’s been a huge success for students and helps them to overcome any test anxiety they might have.
Do you use the TABE® test (Tests of Adult Basic Education) in conjunction with the TASC test?
When a student first comes to one of our CTE centers, community HSE classes, or the Big Picture Learning program, we give them the TABE® test to see what their strengths are and what they need help with. Once we know what their level is, we provide instruction (available in all subject areas) to help students be successful and earn that diploma.
How do your instructors help students prepare for the TASC test?
In our community classes, teachers provide personalized learning for each student based on what the student needs and what his or her goals are. This helps the student to have a stake in their own education, as well as gives the teachers a good place to start with identifying what the student needs to work on. Our students range in age anywhere from 16 years old to retirement age. Because our adult funding is designed for employment preparation, we have an essential partnership with the local One Stop career center and workforce development system to target instruction to adults who are looking to enter, return, or upgrade employment, or to complete post-secondary education to obtain a career.
We also provide high school equivalency instruction at the Cattaraugus County Jail for both high-school-age youth and adults. The process at the jail is similar to our other HSE classes, where students take the TABE test for placement, and instruction is individualized for them to be successful. Again, if those students have passed a Regents Exam, it counts towards their TASC test. It’s not just for high school – anyone who has passed a Regents Exam will have that subject waived on the TASC test.
How do you administer the TASC test in your centers?
For the most part, we do computer-based testing. We find it’s really beneficial for examinees because they have online tools they can use within the online testing system, like the option eliminator, the line guide, and the highlighter tool. It’s easier to focus on one question at a time, choose an answer, and then press the “Next” button, as compared to a paper test where you have to track what you’re doing from the test booklet to an answer page, make sure you’re on the right number, and move back and forth. So it’s very beneficial for students who have trouble with attention.
In addition, students absolutely love the fact they can generally get their grades in one to five days with the computer-based test. We reassure them by telling them, “It’ll be okay, we’ll get through this. If you have a question, you’ll raise your hand, and I will come over and we’ll figure out any question you might have with the computer. And did I tell you that you can usually get your grades in one to five days?” Their response to that is 100%: “Sign me up for that computer test, I’m there!”
Another benefit of computer-based testing is the screen reader. Students who have the accommodation for screen reader have the option to make it faster or slower, which really helps them. Some students get very frustrated with a person reading to them, but the TASC test screen reader makes it easier for them, allowing them to choose the speed or even turn it off if they want.
What is the importance of having both computer-based and paper-based testing options with the TASC test?
We’re only allowed to give paper tests in jails, so it’s extremely important to have that paper option. There’s also one accommodation that can only be used on paper, which is the read-aloud accommodation for passages in the reading test. So it’s extremely important to have the paper test available for students who need it.
How would you describe the transition to testing online?
We were actually a field test site for both the computer-based and the paper-and-pencil TASC test before January 2014 (when the TASC test rolled out statewide). So we ended up being one of the original 13 sites in New York State that started with computer tests. We’ve been computer testing since the beginning, and it’s really easy – people just have to be open-minded about it.
What successes have you seen with the TASC test?
In our adult population, we currently have 65 students enrolled in classes. Over the past year, we had 25 students who achieved their high school equivalency. We track our students after they’ve completed, and we have HSE students who have achieved success in welding, machining, automotive, phlebotomy, nurse aid, and medical office assisting. One of our Student of the Year candidates for New York State went from the HSE class to practical nursing. We consider these success stories because they have achieved employment in the field that they came to CABOCES to train for. We have other students who continue on with community college and other colleges as well.
Do you have other examples of success stories from your students?
I can tell you a couple of anecdotal stories about some of our high school students. We’ve had three this year pass the TASC test. One was a student who moved here from a different state in what would’ve been his senior year of high school. He wasn’t successful in school and had zero high school credit. He came here, passed the TASC test this year, and now has a job and is also finishing up his career and technical education endorsement.
Another student just passed a month or so ago who only needed to take two sections of the TASC test because he had passed the Regents Exam in the other sections. He’s finishing up two different programs for career and technical education and he got a scholarship to go to college, which is something he never thought would be possible. This has a lot to do with being able to be successful on the TASC test. Without being able to pass with the Regents component, it would have been much more challenging for him. He had never thought about going to college until now.
Do students need to be enrolled in one of your programs in order to take the TASC test?
We have a lot of people who are not part of a CABOCES program who come here for testing. We are very open to helping everybody who comes in the door, whether it’s homeschoolers or anyone else.
How do you celebrate your students’ achievements?
Once a student passes the TASC test and earns their HSE diploma, we invite them back for a graduation ceremony. We have two ceremonies each year, one in January and one in June. Students enter to Pomp and Circumstance in caps and gowns and receive a certificate of success from a board member, just as in traditional high school graduation ceremonies. We also recognize the students who received the highest score for each subject area and the highest overall score on the TASC test. The student with the highest CABOCES overall score speaks at graduation, and we have another student nominated by a teacher lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Both recent graduations had over 100 people in attendance. It’s an important event for the families as well as for the students to recognize this huge achievement in their lives.
There is no charge to take the TASC test in New York State. How important is affordability for your students?
It is true that New York State does not charge students for the TASC test or for their preparation program. CABOCES comprises an area the size of Rhode Island, so the biggest hurdle a lot of our students face is transportation. Despite having to travel a long distance, they want to come to class and take advantage of the ability to better themselves and get a high school equivalency education. Because we know that the issue is there in terms of people’s time and transportation and because childcare is a huge expense for somebody who wants to come to class, New York State has begun a new option for students to take advantage of class time combined with a distance-learning component. This gives students the ability to do home study as well as learn in class. This was the first pilot year for the new program, and we did mathematics distance learning as a trial. They’re looking at the possibility of opening it up to other subject areas.
What motivates your students to earn their high school equivalency?
Primarily, it’s to be able to finish what they started. We’ve had students who’ve said, I’ve never been successful at anything and this is the one thing I’m doing for myself. I’ve taken care of everyone else, I’ve helped everyone else through; now I need to do this for me.
We have a mix of students who go directly into the workforce and students who go on to college. Some of them realize that they can’t get meaningful employment without a high school equivalency, and others want to go back to school because even though they have a job, it’s not a job that will lead them up the career ladder, and they want to be able to better themselves and have better options for their careers.
One man who had a job for 20 years was told it was going to become a civil service job, and he had one month to get a high school diploma or equivalency, or he would be out of a job. Another was making a good income as a private contractor and was going to lose his contract because he did not have a high school diploma. He had a week to prepare for the TASC test, and his daughter, who was a senior in high school, was waking up at 5:00 in the morning to tutor him. The first time he failed the writing part because he didn’t stay on topic, and he knew he didn’t stay on topic. When he came back to test again, he passed it and he was able to return to work. It was very important to keep his job. This affects a lot of people whose jobs are turning into civil service jobs.
What does it mean to your students to pass the TASC test?
We each have had our own experiences with wonderful, heartwarming stories of success. We had a young man who was in our program at the jail and was just absolutely beside himself that he could actually achieve this, because he had never had this kind of success in his life before.
One girl with special accommodations had been taking the test for two or three years, and she absolutely refused to marry her fiancé until she passed. She was very adamant that she was going to do this. After she passed, she went on to be a certified nursing assistant. At our graduation ceremony in January she said, now I can apply to college because they wouldn’t accept me before. They did get married and have a house, and she’s applying to community college to become a registered nurse.
What are you most passionate about with the work that you do in Adult Ed?
It fundamentally changes the life chances of someone and their family. It’s not just for that individual, it’s for their families and also for our community. The Southern Tier is one of the most impoverished regions in New York State. For our students to be able to earn that diploma and increase their employability, it changes the whole region. We have an opportunity to help truly make a difference.
What are your most important takeaways for aspiring HSE candidates?
One of the most important things to remember is that even though you can get a job without a high school diploma, other career choices become possible by beginning the trip down the road to obtaining your high school equivalency diploma. Students can continue to post-secondary school or other careers. Options open up when a student has their high school equivalency or diploma.
When students come in to take the test, they can be all bound up with nerves. We tell them, you just need to try it. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be in exactly the same place you are right now. But try it, because you’re going to be one step closer. One success at a time. Maybe you pass one of the subjects, and then you know you can do it. You have to give it a try and see where it takes you.
Again, with a passed Regents Exam as part of the process, it opens the door for so many more students to earn that high school equivalency diploma and to be able to change their outlook. It’s a huge advantage. A lot of people who come in only need to pass one subject on the TASC test because of the credit they get from the Regents Exams. If you’ve passed the English Regents, that covers TASC reading and writing. If you passed the Science Regents, that covers the TASC science. For students who have passed all four Regents Exams, they only have to take one subject of their choice on the TASC test.
There are many extenuating circumstances preventing someone from finishing high school, such as a change in residences. When students aren’t able to attend school on a regular basis, they don’t have the time necessary to pass their traditional classes during their high school program. Earning their HSE opens the door for them. Again, it goes back to fundamentally changing the life chances of a person.