A Bar Set Too High

By: Shawn Magrath

In the two and a half years I've worked as a reporter at Chenango County’s hometown daily, I only recently learned that a court has authority to require someone to take (and pass) the General Equivalency Development Test, better known as the GED.

My realization stems from a recent case in which a 17-year-old girl appeared in a local court on the charges of criminal trespass. It certainly wasn’t this girl’s first run-in with the law. The judge overseeing the case ruled that the girl, who struggles tremendously in reading and writing and is considered borderline illiterate, serve 60 days in the Chenango County Correctional facility followed by three years of probation with the additional term and condition that she pass the GED.

On the surface, it sounds fair – time in jail and the order to improve herself. I don't have to lecture the benefits of having an education. Today's GED is tailored to align with Common Core standards that challenge students to think critically and analytically so they become college and career ready. The GED Testing Service says the test “lives up to expectations of employers, colleges and GED test-takers themselves.” Without a doubt, that would result in a more productive member of the Chenango County community.

Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I believe the judge's decision was mindful in this case. Given this particular girl's background of illiteracy, a traumatic history of abuse, and sadly few people who seem to give a damn, I can't help but think a court mandate to take and pass the GED is a set-up for more failure and thus, more problems in the future. Am I unreasonable to think that someone who has trouble reading this might only dream of passing the GED?

I hesitated writing this piece for fear of being considered too lenient. Truth is, I do believe this girl was in the wrong and frankly, any court order to gain an education I take in good measure.

Regardless, I believe there's a big difference between overcoming what's difficult and overcoming what’s near impossible, particularly for someone already teetering on the edge of social contempt. In the case of the 17-year-old girl, passing the GED was a bar set too high. In my opinion, a requirement to pass a reading proficiency test might have been a more reasonable alternative; realistic, yet still challenging. Not to mention, with local programs like Literacy Volunteers for Chenango County, there's opportunity for her to succeed.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in legal affairs by any means. So I should reiterate that I have a certain amount of respect for a court ordered GED. Like I said, there are benefits. Even so, I also believe that each individual has a certain capacity for learning, which should be taken into account. Asking someone to pass a test they can’t even read... well, there must be a better option.


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