After 40 frustrating minutes of trying to launch the HiSET test for the test-takers who had driven great distances and waited patiently, Michelle Voto apologized for the technical difficulties and told them it was not working and to go home.
Before they left, she asked them if they would like her to call them back if the program started up again, to which many said yes.
Twenty minutes later, the test site was up and running. Voto rushed to call all the test-takers back. Some were able to return, but others could not due to various circumstances, and by then it was too late. They would have to wait until the following month to take the test and hope the same issues wouldn’t happen again.
For five months – since being bought out by PSI Services – the HiSET test has experienced recurring technical issues, including system outages, improper test scores and mounting financial strain, to name a few. It’s gotten so bad the state Department of Education plans to bring back the GED test that HiSET replaced, to provide more options until problems can be resolved.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Voto, the executive director of the Exeter Adult Learning Center. “Both at the grassroots efforts for us and our students, but also for the state level.”
What is HiSET?
HiSET is a high school equivalency test offered in many states across the country, including New Hampshire. It tests students in five categories, including language arts reading, language arts writing, mathematics, science and social studies, according to the website.
In New Hampshire, adult learning centers across the state offer a variety of educational programs, with HiSET being one of them, according to Deanna Strand, executive director of the Dover Adult Learning Center. She explained that students study for the exams with the help of counselors at the learning centers, then take the tests when they are prepared. Once they complete all five tests, they earn their high school equivalency certificate.
Eligibility differs from state to state, but in New Hampshire, people 16 and older can take the test, according to Strand.
Before HiSET, the state offered an exam called the GED.
Originally, the GED was replaced because it expired at the end of 2013, as it has done periodically in history to allow for updates, Strand said. It was also sold to Pearson Vue, and with this sale came two major changes: The test became online-only, and the price increased significantly. HiSET, therefore, was its replacement as it provided paper options and operated at a much lower price, she explained.
What is the issue HiSETis facing?
HiSET was owned by a company called Educational Testing Services (ETS) until it was sold to PSI Services in December 2021, according to Sarah Wheeler, the administrator of the Bureau of Adult Education for the NH Department of Education. The testing services officially made the transition last September and October.
Since the transition to PSI Services, HiSET has faced a multitude of technical issues, including difficulties scheduling students for testing dates, tests not working or shutting down midway through, lost test scores and a plethora of other problems, according to Strand.
These issues have resulted in major delays in people receiving their certificates, she said.
“If they’re delayed, it could mean they don’t get a promotion or they don’t get the job or they miss an admission deadline. So any delay is a problem,” she said. “People’s lives are being held up because they can’t pursue their goals, because they haven’t got the credential that they’ve been preparing for, sometimes for years.”
Strand gave an example.
“We get calls from families saying, ‘My child wants to register for college in the spring semester, but they don’t have their certificate yet.’ And then we have to go and try to get a second-best, which would be a transcript. But then their (PSI’s) transcript system was unreliable,” she explained.
Why are these issues happening?
Educational Testing Services, which formerly owned HiSET, was the company that developed the test as well as the SAT, according to Strand. It provided strictly educational testing.
PSI Services, which bought HiSET from ETS, offers a much broader range of testing services, including tests for those seeking to go into real estate, cosmetology, manicurist and barbering, IT, construction and trades, insurance and other sectors, according to their website.
“I don’t think they really understood the kind of students that we serve or the way adult education centers operate or what our specific needs would be,” said Strand. “There was very little testing of their systems, and of the test itself, that would have worked out these kinks before they rolled it out to the whole country.”
Allistair Fryer-Bovill, vice president of Global Marketing at PSI Services, countered this, saying that there was significant testing in August and September before the launch in October. However, he acknowledged that issues specific to certain scenarios were not identified during the testing process.
Other states that employ the HiSET as their high school equivalency standard have also experienced issues, although these have varied state to state, according to Fryer-Bovill.
“I just don’t think they understood the enormity of the project that they were undertaking,” said Pam Shaw, student services coordinator at the Dover Adult Learning Center.
However, Fryer-Bovill said that since going live in October, PSI Services has “more than doubled our resources dedicated to HiSET across all of the client- and candidate-facing teams.” This includes leveraging overall technology and the hiring of almost 40 individuals dedicated to HiSET, taking calls and supporting test centers, he informed.
Fryer-Bovill issued an email statement responding to the delayed test score reports.
“We know how important HiSET is to our test-takers, and anything that gets in the way of receiving their High School Equivalency (HSE) credential has an impact. Regrettably, there was a technical issue that led to delays with New Hampshire test takers receiving their HiSET results, for which we truly apologize. As soon as this was identified, a dedicated team of experts within PSI was assembled and as of 6 April 2023 all results have now been passed through to New Hampshire Department of Education and those delays in results should no longer occur.”
However, testing delays are not the only issue being faced by test centers. Strand said that even though test turnaround time for scoring has been generally better since April 6, other issues continue to occur and new ones have presented themselves.
One of the first issues to arise with the switch to PSI Services, according to Vigdis Dunn, the HiSET coordinator at Second Start in Concord, was that test providers were given incorrect log-in credentials to access student schedules and log into the system portal to view student score reports.
This was also true for test-takers. When the switch first happened in September, test-takers were unable to access their accounts, as PSI did not automatically transfer student account information over from the old system. The students had to create new PSI accounts, according to Dunn.
The issue, however, was not creating a new account, but rather getting in touch with PSI to figure out how to go about doing it.
“We were on hold for like an hour,” said Ricky Currier, a HiSET student at the Exeter Adult Learning Center. “They were still not very good at handling the situation.”
Issues with test date scheduling
The biggest issue at the beginning of the switch for the Concord center, according to Dunn, was with accessing the test schedule. Dunn explained that when PSI took over, they requested all the centers to send in which test dates and times they wanted to show up on their schedule.
“Our schedules just could not get loaded into the system,” she said. Without a schedule, nobody could sign up to take the tests they needed.
When they finally loaded their schedule in the system, the dates and times they requested were incorrect.
These issues, Dunn added, meant she was rushing to communicate with other adult learning center directors, such as Voto and Strand, to see if they could take on some of her test-takers.
Fryer-Bovill acknowledged the issue and said there were delays in the transition process but that additional training was provided and the issue was resolved.
Dunn said that even though this specific issue is no longer present, the Concord adult learning center experienced months of delay, being unable to run tests in September and October. Their first test under PSI ran on Nov. 22
Tests shutting down
Testing outages have also been an issue across the state.
Cindy St. Germain, HiSET coordinator at the Dover Adult Learning Center, explained that there have been multiple occasions where tests shut down midway through, so students could not complete their tests.
She provided an example of one student who experienced this issue.
“He was in the middle of taking his test. And the test totally shut down. … He had 20 questions left to answer,” she said.
The student passed the test, despite being unable to answer the last 20 questions.
“But if this scenario had been any different, and he didn’t pass, he would have had to come back to take another test at our test center,” St. Germain said.
“It’s also unfortunate, because his score is probably a lot lower than he would have scored, which, if he was applying for college, it’s better to have a higher score. So it definitely affected him in that regard,” added Shaw.
Fryer-Bovill responded saying, test-takers impacted by outages receive an “excused absence” in their records for the test that shut down and receive a voucher to retake their test free of charge.
However, adult learning centers explained the complexities of the situation.
Voto said that when a test shuts down, it not only shuts down for one center, it shuts down for all of the centers in the state that may be taking tests at a given time. Tests also are only offered a few times a month at each center, so when they shut down, students have to wait a while to come back, she noted.
“They pick their testing time very specifically to fit with what else is going on in their lives – work, children, transportation and, you know, to arrive at a test center and then not be able to test is definitely a burden,” Shaw said.
Strand added that the Dover Adult Learning Center has had to pause HiSET testing operations twice this year to try and figure out all the issues and get up and running without system outages.
“When we restarted, we were doing like two, three test-takers at a time and hand-selecting the ones we felt had the greatest urgency and the most resilience to be able to handle what we knew was going to be a clunky problem.”
They still have not returned to full test taking capacity, as issues persist.
New Hampshire as a whole, had scheduled 435 tests by March of last year, under ETS. By March of this year under PSI, it had scheduled 252, according to data across the N.H. adult learning centers.
Incorrect test scores
Another major issue test centers have faced is students receiving incorrect score reports.
“I have one student who tested in November, who was well-prepared, and she received a 1 on her reading test and that still hasn’t been corrected,” said Shaw.
Strand explained that tests are scored on a scale from 1 to 20.
“A one is essentially an invalid score,” she said. “You never see an accurate score of a one.”
“Even if you guessed on every question, you know, if you chose B for every answer, you would get at least 4 or 5,” said Shaw.
She added that this student passed her practice test.
“I would not let her take the test unless I felt confident,” she said. “If you can pass the practice tests, most likely you will pass the official HiSET test.”
Strand added that this is one example of many situations where students’ transcripts say they passed, but the score is not a passing number.
“We are assessing all instances of these results individually to reset records appropriately,” Fryer-Bovill responded.
Tests can also be taken on paper, but that has presented its own set of issues.
Incorrect paper-based scores have been recorded, and paper-based tests have been lost. Since there is only one copy of the paper-based test, a lost test is a major issue, Strand said.
In addition, paper-based tests have sometimes taken up to six weeks to get a score. If the score is wrong, the student has to retake the test, then wait another six weeks and hope it is correctly scored the second time.
Students under the age of 18 are required to submit a voucher to be eligible to take the test, according to Voto. However, when the switch to PSI happened, the system experienced issues with accepting vouchers, so people under the age of 18 could not take the tests. That problem took multiple weeks to sort out, she said.
Fryer-Bovill disputed this, saying was never an issue and that all vouchers were accepted regardless of age.
But according to Dunn, there was a significant wait period for the vouchers to be accepted, when this was never a problem under ETS.
Voto’s student, Currier, had this issue.
“I just had to wait,” he said. “I really just wanted to get it done and over with.”
Impact on mental health for students
The issues have not only frustrated workers at adult learning centers but also their students.
“School has been very stressful for me and this program has made it a lot less stressful,” said Currier. “But it definitely was overwhelming with the amount of problems run into with the company.”
Voto reflected on the impacts of tests shutting down and not working properly.
“When you think about the appropriate testing sites you want, you want it to be a quiet room, we tell students to sleep well the night before you come in, relax, to make sure you eat, go use the bathroom before we start,” said Voto.
But when tests don’t function and test-takers have to wait for the system to get up and running, or to have it shut down in the middle, it is frustrating, she said.
“The folks it has impacted the most have been our students. The ripple effect of not testing for three months is significant. It affects student’s lives and their livelihood,” said Dunn. “I have had many students who have had to take time out of busy work schedules to come in to test, only to have the schedule changed on them.”
Dunn added that she had many stories of people who needed to complete the HiSet for jobs, or to enroll in schools, certificate programs, and the military, but were delayed in doing so.
“I had two students that needed to have the test completed by the end of the year to keep their jobs. They both completed (the test) just under the wire, but I wrote letters of explanation to their employers, so they did not lose their jobs,” she said.
“It was the end of the year; it was the holidays. It was stressful.”
One student of Dunn’s needed disability accommodations including extended time, extra breaks, and having a designated person read the test to them.
These accommodations had previously existed for the student in the ETYS system, but when PSI took over, the accommodations did not automatically transfer, so Dunn was faced with having to reapply her student for necessary accommodations.
“Pulling all of that information over, it just didn’t come over easily.
Students leaving testing centers
Many of her students, Dunn said, have stopped coming to classes and studying for the tests, with tests shutting down and scheduling issues persisting.
“I heard from a lot of them say, ‘Why should I even bother coming if there’s nothing for me to do?’ ” she said. “So a lot of them just sort of disappeared.”
Shaw said much of the time she would normally use to help students is being used to deal with technical issues.
“Our students are pretty resilient. And we try to make it as smooth as possible,” said Shaw. “There are students not being served in the way that I like to serve them in meeting their needs.”
“From the top right on down, every single person working in adult education right now and doing HiSET testing is experiencing this inability to do the central core mission of our work because we’re having to manage this really dysfunctional system in order to get our students through,” Strand said.
“We’re doing it as best we can to create a filter and a barrier between those troubles and our students to protect them.
“The financial toll on the testing centers and the state has been huge,” said Strand.
She explained that each of the five categories that make up the Hi-Set are called subtests. The staff get paid a portion of each subtest to be able to administer the tests.
“When our own testing capacity is so severely diminished, we’re bringing in less money to support the testing program,” she said.
She said the cost of running the program has increased dramatically, “because of all of the time it takes to just use the system even when it’s functioning, and then troubleshoot all the problems and then try and get resolution from their customer service department.”
St. Germain added that her work hours have tripled, which means Strand has to pay her for that time.
“I don’t have the income with which to pay her. So that draws money from other programs. I have to find that money somehow,” said Strand. “You can’t test, we don’t bring in money. You can’t pay your staff.”
In addition to staff, students have also been affected financially.
Each of the five required HiSET subtests cost $25. According to Dunn, if students get sick and need to reschedule their tests that they had already paid and signed up for, the previous company, ETS, would have given them a credit in their account to put that money toward the rescheduled test.
But, when PSI took over, the students stopped receiving credits, and either have to pay in full again, or have Dunn advocate for them to get the money credited, which sometimes takes months and puts the students behind on their testing.
If a test shuts down or doesn’t start up to begin with, students face the same issues with having to reschedule and fight to have their payments credited towards a make-up test.
Is anything happeningto solve the issue?
Wheeler – from the state Department of Education – has been meeting with PSI officials in person on a weekly basis to try and solve issues.
“She’s been trying to consolidate and organize problems thematically, because they occur at every level, from registration to scheduling to scoring. There are categories of issues that she’s been compiling from the field and bringing to PSI,” said Strand. “She’s been incredibly, incredibly helpful.”
Fryer Bovill, spokesperson for PSI, also said the company plans to “keep the lines of communication with our HiSET clients and partners open as we make ongoing enhancements to the program.”
Janet Garcia, [resident of PSI said in an email to that “we would be very happy to work directly with your source to resolve their specific issues.”
The state education department is now working to bring back the GED test, which they previously employed before using Hi-SET.
Wheeler said it will take three to four months to get GED back in place.
As of right now, GED will not replace HiSET, but will be offered alongside it. Therefore, people who started with the HiSET test cannot switch over to GED and issues with HiSET will still need to be solved.
However, the state Bureau of Adult Education is looking into whether it is possible to combine scores to make a complete switch to GED an option for the future.
Strand said some students have opted to wait for GED and receive their certificate rather than get involved with HiSET.
In the meantime, test centers continue to struggle with technical issues and frustration over the situation.
“I worry about the impression that is left on the community, and if the reputation of the high school equivalency testing program isn’t tarnished,” Strand said.
“This is not the quality product that we are accustomed to delivering. And, I’m hopeful that once we get the GED back up and running in New Hampshire, that we can recapture that confidence in the integrity and the efficiency and the quality of our testing program.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.