Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Automatic Fail

My office offers a variety of tests, one of them being the GED. I know Chris Rock said it's the "Good Enough Diploma," but proving basic academic skill is a goal many people didn't achieve while in school, and a second chance often provides a stepping stone to a better life. We see people marked with tattoos indicating gang affiliations and those who have spent their children's entire lives on welfare; homeschooled kids come in to prove mastery of high school fundamentals so they are eligible to enroll in college. Many put themselves on trial to get that job or that promotion that has been thus far unattainable. The pressure placed upon these people -- either because they waited too long before looking into the test or out of sheer fear of failure -- may be the cause of some pretty strange behavior, but I'm not convinced. Most of our examinees come in, take the test (and retest, if necessary) without raising our eyebrows. When something does happen, we mentally place that person in the "Automatic Fail" file. We have no means nor desire to alter anybody's score, but the collective will watch to see how he or she did. 

What does it take to get our attention? Sometimes a phone call made well in advance of the test date will get it started. Yesterday I got three calls from a man who wanted information about the GED. Each time, he acted as if he had never called before. Five seconds into the third call he asked me to hold on while he passed the phone to his wife. She wanted to know where to submit her payment. The conversation went like this (with alterations to the name of my office and organization):

"You're going to make the money order out to SBGED."

"Okay. SG..."

"S... B... G... E... D"

"Okay. SG..."

"S... B..."

"Oh! Okay. SG..."

"San Bernardino Good Enough Diploma."

"Ahh, SG."

"No, S, B. As in San Bernardino."

"Oh, hahaha. SBGED."

"Yes, you're going to send your payment to the XYZ Assessment Center." I paused for several seconds, waiting to hear her repeating the last few syllables of the name or for an "Okay" to signal that she'd finished writing, but there was just silence, so I continued. "The address is (pause) 123 East Main Street (long pause) San Bernardino (pause) California (pause) 92401."

Just before I was going to ask if the caller was still on the line, I heard, "Mm-hmm. Okay. XYZ what?"

I prayed to the high heavens for patience and the voice of a Stepford wife while I went through the address again. Once she had it on paper, she said, "Okay, just to clarify -- what is the number I've called?"

"This is the X... Y... Z... Assessment... Center."

"Mm-hmm, and what's the phone number?"

Uh... the one you dialed?


When I first started answering phones at work, I was surprised by how many calls were like the one above. Fortunately, most of them are shorter and less repetitive, like the conversation I had on Friday with a girl whose adult school would accept a passing GED math score in place of class credits. Here's what she had to say:

"I just need to know how much it will be to take the math test. My school will give me credit if I pass."

"There's a $20 registration and certificate fee and the math test is $9."

"That's it? Oh, that's such a blessing. I really thought it would be a lot more. Now, how much is that total?"

Perhaps she should just stick with the classes.

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