For all the barriers that often stand in the way of those working toward their GED, the test itself will soon become more challenging.

The holder of a General Education Development certificate is certified to have high-school level academic skills.

Come January 2014, states will embrace a new format of the national test, which will focus more on short answer and essays for language arts and tougher critical-thinking questions for math, science and social studies. The new format also will depart from the traditional pen-and-paper for a computer-based exam and cost an extra $50.

"It's becoming more in line with Core 40 nationwide," said Molly Dodge, River Valley Resources director of external affairs. "The new GED test will emphasize things like critical thinking, problem solving, inference; these sort of higher-level metal skills that employers want."

The latest version of the test was released in 2002, but by the end of 2013, those who have not passed all of the required five sections of the test will not see those credits transfer over into next year.

That caveat is one of the reasons Dodge and those at River Valley Resources are encouraging students enrolled in GED courses - especially those who have already passed a few sections of the exam- to buckle down and pass the test before the next round of changes.

There is also time for new students, as well, she said.

"It's our goal to help a learner earn their GED and be successful as fast as they possibly can," Dodge said.

Studying for the GED test can take several months, but Dodge said accelerated learners can complete the work in as short as six to eight weeks.

"In essence, we have a year," she said. "But I really think that folks who come to class now could earn their GED in this semester."

Debby Williams has taught GED classes in Jefferson County for 15 years. She said she remembers the changeover in 2002, and she expects 2014 to be a much higher hurdle.

"That wasn't anything compared to this," she said.

A challenge is that her students range from 16 to 70, and many of them do not have access to a computer to practice their skills at home. On top of that, she said it's more difficult to teach some of the skills that the new test will implement, such as application and critical thinking.

To embrace the computer changes, River Valley Resources is offering a computer program separate from the regular course load to GED learners, and is partnering with libraries to provide free computer classes.

"The goal of that is to make them comfortable with the computer and the format," Dodge said.

Resources Available

River Valley Resources, which serves Jefferson and its surrounding counties, offers free GED classes throughout the region. In Madison, GED classes are held at WorkOne on the hilltop Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Monday and Wednesday from 5 to 9 p.m.

The GED program is funded through the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The state agency funds each region and a big part of the formula focuses on student performance.

For the 2012-2013 school year, Region 9, which includes Jefferson County, received 20 percent more in funding compared with the year before, Dodge said. That allowed River Valley Resources to expand its GED preparation hours from 10 hours to 24 hours a week.

Anyone interested in earning their GED can call the RVR toll-free hotline (855) 591-7849 or enroll on-site at the class location.

During the fall semester in 2012, Jefferson County enrolled 52 GED students, 18 of whom earned their certificates, and 60 percent of whom made "learning gains," Dodge said.

The spring semester began in January and will end in June. At the current pace, the program will graduate more learners than the 2011-2012 school year, Dodge said.

A major challenge for GED classes is retention, as most learners are adults juggling multiple responsibilities between work and parenting. As things get overwhelming, Dodge said students sometime drop the classes or take a hiatus from their studies.

"The biggest challenge is that their barriers get in the way. As we get older, more things happen in our lives, and it becomes more complicated," she said. "The adults in our classes are usually working, and then some may be underemployed."

But even beyond the free GED classes, there is help in place from transportation to tutoring and even financial help for the exam.

For example, Catch-A-Ride is available for those students who do not have reliable transportation or no transportation at all, and the Madison Jefferson County Public Library also provides tutors to help students one-on-one with computer skills and assignments.

"One of my biggest concerns about the computer-based testing is just simply the cost," Dodge said. "$120 is a lot versus $70."

To help clear some the financial burden of the exam, test-takers can apply for a grant through the Madison Jefferson County Community Foundation. The grant factors in financial need and academics.

With several resources in the community, Dodge hopes local adults can find a way to earn their GED diploma and take the next step into a good career.

"Now is the time to get your GED," she said. "And to be honest, we try to make sure a learner is ready on all five sections before they take that test, because this is a big step for them to go back to school."