CONCORD -- Every time a bell rings in the holiday movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," an angel gets its wings. In a similarly heartwarming gesture, every time teacher Christine Paynton rings a bell in her Mt. Diablo adult education class, it means a student has earned his or her GED high school equivalency certificate.
As classes came to an end this month, Paynton excitedly rang her bell four times, proudly introducing graduates who passed their high school equivalency exams in the nick of time, before new tests are unveiled in January. Across the country, thousands of adults have been scrambling to finish the tests and earn their certificate -- an important academic milestone for those without a high school diploma -- or else begin anew with more rigorous, computerized assessments next month.
"If they didn't pass all five subjects with a total of 2,250 points, they will have to start all over," Paynton said. "I'm sure some will be sad, some might lose their 'oomph,' but I will be calling them and encouraging them to 'get back on the horse,' and together we will make their passing the 2014 GED happen."
Armando Vazquez and Edie Scoggins, who both live in Concord, said they didn't score well enough on pretests to attempt the GED before the end of December. Instead, they are gearing up for the much tougher exams that will replace the old 2002 tests in 2014.
"At first, I wanted to get my GED so I could get a better job, but now that I've been studying, I'm thinking of going to college," said Vazquez, 37. "I wanted to take the GED (this year), but I decided to wait until next year to get a little more practice. I want to learn more because there's a lot of material."
The GED Testing Service updated the exams to better prepare students for college and careers. The new tests will condense five subject-matter exams into four and will include more difficult questions aligned with new Common Core Curriculum Standards that promote critical thinking and problem-solving, said spokesman Armando Diaz. To get ready, some centers have begun offering the soon-to-be-obsolete 2002 test on computers.
"We're changing our entire vision, so the GED is not the end, it's the next step," Diaz said. "If you want to apply to college or get a job, that all starts online. So, if we're not teaching our students basic computer skills, we're not preparing them."
Scoggins, a 49-year-old high school dropout, said she's not disappointed that she wasn't able to take and pass the old tests by the end of the year. Instead, she said she looks forward to the challenge of the new tests.
"I feel like I've been this long without a GED, I can take a little longer," said Scoggins, who is taking the courses with her younger sister. "I want to know all the answers, so I feel it's best that I just take classes and start learning from where I stopped. And hopefully, next year, I'll be up to par."
Thuan Nguyen, who immigrated from Vietnam six months ago, said he hopes to pass the GED next year, then go to college and study photography.
"I need to improve my English," said Nguyen, 21. "I'm not worried about the computer test because it's better for me and it will help with more training."
Just as students are gearing up for the new tests, so are adult education centers and GED testing sites. Of 190 testing sites throughout the state, about 60 percent have committed to administering the new tests, while about 40 percent have decided not to for a variety of reasons, including the cost. Many are hoping the state will adopt an alternative test that could be taken with paper and pencils.
Julie Vo, program coordinator for the Mountain View Los Altos adult school, said her site is one of several in Santa Clara County that has no immediate plans to become a test site for the new GED, but may consider an alternative test, if one becomes available.
"We can continue to offer test preparation," Vo said. "We just will not be a test center. We're still prepping the same number of students, but where are they going to go? I have a feeling that the one or two testing centers in our area will be overloaded."
The Silicon Valley Adult Education Center in the Metropolitan Education District in San Jose is ready to take on those new test takers, said Karen Enzensperger, the program's GED chief examiner. The center has been offering the old tests on 13 computers, along with the paper and pencil version, as a way of transitioning to the new system, she said.
"When we added the computer testing center," Enzensperger said, "that more than doubled our capability."
In Contra Costa County, the Mt. Diablo, Liberty, Pittsburg and West Contra Costa adult education centers plan to offer the new tests, but the Martinez and San Ramon Valley adult schools don't, said Lindy Khan, director of innovation and support for the County Office of Education. The county office has started offering the old tests on computers and is ready to start administering the 2014 tests next month.
"Our test center has been open since the middle of November," Khan said. "And we have been rockin' and rollin' because there are so many people scrambling to finish, that the adult schools have been incredibly packed."
For those who still want to take a paper and pencil test, the state plans to solicit vendors to provide an alternative to the GED and to make a decision by March, said Eric Zilbert, a California Department of Education administrator.
Paynton -- who refers to herself as a cheerleader for her students -- will continue ringing her bell to celebrate their successes, no matter which tests they take. But she admits that those who have to start over may find it daunting to take a new GED test with harder questions on unfamiliar computers.
"Most of my students probably will not give up," she said. "But, knowing human nature, some will feel like giving up. Hopefully, they will get encouraged and try, try again."
In 2012, 58,810 people took the GED test in California. Of those, 30,082 or 55.9 percent, passed.
Out of 190 test centers in California, 113 or 60 percent, plan to offer the new GED test.
Details about the new General Education Development test, or GED, and upcoming changes are available by calling 800-626-9433 or going to www.ged.com.
To see video clips of GED students and educators in the Mt. Diablo school district's adult education program, visit www.contracostatimes.com/education.