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The Spanish GED

The Door to Opportunity in Doña Ana County

by Anastasia K. Cotton and Bertha Cantú-Lujá
Passing the GED in Spanish now rather than in English years from now makes sense to many Spanish speakers whose English language skills are limited. In southern New Mexico, the Doña Ana Branch Community College Spanish General Educational Development (GED) program provides classes for just this purpose. Anastasia Cotton and Bertha Cantú-Lujá co-authored this story of their program. Ms.Cotton begins with a description of the region, the population, and the overall program. Ms.Cantú-Lujá describes her students and her approach.

- Barbara Garner

As GED Specialist for Doña Ana Branch Community College (DABCC), I travel throughout a service area of 126 miles, visiting classrooms and talking with teachers and students. Doña Ana County, New Mexico, is 3,805 square miles, larger than the state of Delaware. It is located in south-central New Mexico, on the Mexican border. Encompassing high mountain ranges, fertile valleys, and the high desert, Doña Ana County terrain is as varied as its population. Of the 162,849 residents (1995 county census), 56.4 percent are Hispanics; about three percent are Native Americans, Asians, African-Americans; whites make up the balance.

The grandeur of the area contrasts with the poverty of its people. Unemployment is high. Hispanics in the region average a per capita income of $6,056, which is well below the poverty level. The major source of income is seasonal agricultural labor. Six percent of the adults over the age of 18 do not speak English well or at all and 40 percent speak a language other than English at home.

In my sojourns about the county, I continually hear how difficult it is to find a job any job without a high school diploma or GED credential. The major employers (New Mexico State University, White Sands Missile Range, and other governmental agencies) demand secondary school credentials, even for custodial and food preparation jobs. About a third of the residents 18 and older have not completed high school. Local public schools average a 13 percent drop-out rate (DABCC, 1997). Many of our immigrant and migrant Spanish-speaking students from Mexico and Central and South America have had little or no education in their country of origin. In fact, 25 to 50 percent have not finished the sixth grade.

The Adult Basic Education Program at Doña Ana Branch Community College serves county residents by offering instruction in preparation for both the English and Spanish GED. The Spanish-language GED test has been in use since 1969. The general tests are similar to the English versions but are based on the Spanish language, culture, and social norms of Central and South America, Cuba, and Puerto Rico and were normed against graduating high school seniors in Puerto Rico. All five major tests mathematics, writing, science, social sciences, and interpretation of literature and the arts must be taken within a two-week period, according to GED Testing Service policy in New Mexico. Our state requires a sixth test, La prueba seis en ingl╚, the English language proficiency test. This test may be taken after the two-week period elapses, but before the three year deadline (GEDTS Web page, The English knowledge test, which many states do not require of their Spanish test takers, measures reading comprehension and vocabulary in English to the tenth grade level. Across New Mexico, only five percent of all official test examinees take the GED in Spanish, while in Doña Ana County, the number is higher: close to ten percent of GED examinees take the tests in Spanish.

At DABCC, 34 GED preparation classes are offered in 18 locations and serve about 550 students. About 25 percent of these students are studying in Spanish (DABCC, 1998), some of whom will take the test in English, others of whom will study for a few years before they are ready to test. Most of the students in the daytime classes are female. The evening classes have more males, since many men study after working in the fields during the day. These figures may be somewhat skewed because some students are enrolled in more than one class. Also, approximately 1,000 students are studying for the English and Spanish GED tests in three learning centers. Some of these students also attend classes.

Eight of the classes, totaling about 130 students, are taught in both English and Spanish. These classes are located in rural areas and a number are located in colonial: areas where the homes have less than the bare minimums in utilities and other amenities. Many of these students are at the lowest level of basic skills. The Spanish GED program provides students with access to the formal education they did not get. What I have noticed in these classes is that the students want and need time to study. They cannot or will not study at home; class time is the only time they have quiet, resources, and no interruption.

Ms. Cantú-Lujá:
My students are, for the most part, immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. The majority have less than a sixth-grade education. Their first priority upon arriving in the United States is to establish themselves in a community where they feel comfortable, namely, a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Membership in a community where the manners and customs match those the newcomer already has results in social acceptance. This, in turn, helps people develop confidence, the comfort level needed for learning, and a sense that they are fitting in.

As the Hispanic family gets settled and begins to stabilize financially, family members have time to reflect on life, work, and personal development. My students look at continuing their education as one method of achieving a major life goal.


When facing a roomful of eager, adult faces in a Spanish GED class, I sense their expectation that hard work brings just rewards. I want very much to help them get what they desire for themselves through their own efforts. That means I start with an honest and straightforward explanation of the GED process. I talk about the reading level skills needed, the math concepts tested, and the degree of written language fluency required. I explain the GED test scores and their meaning, the need to possess literacy skills in

Long-Term Dreams

In a recent questionnaire for a Spanish GED class, we noted that the majority of the students, whose median age is 35, hold similar long-term dreams: to continue their education beyond the acquisition of the GED certificate. Students responded to the question, "What are your long-term goals?" with the following answers:

  • "Hacer todo lo mejor, y traer prosperidad a mi familia (educaci█, trabajo y saldud)"
    To prosper in every way for the better and bring prosperity to my family (education and work and health)
  • "Tener una casa nueva y un buen trabajo"
    To have a new house and a good job
  • "Poder depender de mi misma con un buen trabajo y ayudar a mis hijos"
    To be independent with a good job and to help my children
  • "Una casa para mi hijo"
    A house for my son
  • "Estudiar algo má que el GED, una carrera corta"
    To study something beyond the GED, a short course of study
  • "Tener una casa propia, estar bien econ█, conocer cuidades, estados, ser una mujer profesional, etc."
    To have my own house, to be economically well; to travel to cities, states, and to be a professional woman, etc.
  • "Mis sueñ son terminar una carrera profesional y dominar el ingl╚, para de esta forma abrirme camino en la vida"
    My dreams are to finish studies for a career and to become fluent in English, so that I may open roads of opportunity in my life.

English, and the limited two-week window of opportunity to take the five core tests. The dose of realism is gulped down, almost audibly, by the students. Then I deliver the "you-can-get-it-if-you-really-want-it" speech. The students get the Adult Basic Education Center's schedules for tutoring, mini-workshops, and skills labs; an outline of the required GED competencies and where and how they can find help outside of class to master the skills they need; and how to get support from the Quintana Learning Center's staff to meet their academic goals. The Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), Level M in Spanish, is the diagnostic test available for identifying areas of strength and weakness, such as division of fractions, multiplication of decimals, measurements, and vocabulary in context. Students who have low skills can work on identified areas of weakness at GED workshops, small group sessions, and individual tutoring.

Classroom instruction lasts approximately two hours twice a week for 12 weeks. In mixed-level Spanish GED classes, I usually use the first hour to target a competency most of the students seem to need. During this hour the class as a whole receives instruction, employs directed learning, and practices the new material.

The second hour of class is set aside for the students to work on their individual education plans (IEP). We develop them jointly, after reviewing the scores on the TABE. In individual conferences with the students, I recommend a short-term learning goal, such as finding the common denominator, and two or three objectives for meeting that target. I document it so that both the student and I have copies. Most students look forward to the second hour because they get the attention they need, particularly if they have problems understanding the guided-practice items from the first hour of class or the practice sheets they took home to do from the previous class.

The lack of adult-oriented, Spanish language materials for teachers and students has been a challenge our program. Many resources for English for Speakers of Other Languages exist, but content area learning materials are hard to come by. Right now, ARCO publishes one Spanish GED book. In the fall of 1998, Contemporary Books is scheduled to issue a Spanish GED text and workbook.

Instructors find that the ARCO book does not meet the learning needs of most of the Spanish GED population in Doña Ana County. The material is designed for the student who has the basic academic skills to take the official test, but just needs a review. So, most remedial materials are teacher-made and informally shared among the instructors. The sole purpose of giving a text to a student is often to foster self-esteem and create a collegiate atmosphere, serving to establish that the student is a student.


The Spanish GED program is a valued commodity in Doña Ana County. In the year from September, 1996, to September, 1997, the number of students taking the complete battery of exams was 155 as compared to 147 the previous year. This contrasts with the number of English GED exam takers, which dropped by 200 during the same year. Many of our Spanish GED graduates continue in English for speakers of other languages classes to become more proficient in their second language. They have achieved their short-term goal of passing the GED. Now they are on their way to meeting their long-term goals.


Doña Ana County Branch Community College (1997). Annual Adult Basic Education Report, Las Cruces, NM. New Mexico Department of Labor (1997). Annual Social and Economic Indicators. General Educational Development Testing Service; web page,

About the Authors

Anastasia K. Cotton, who has a masters in education from Edinboro State University, PA, has been the GED Specialist at NMSU-DABCC since 1994. She started in Adult Basic Education (ABE) as an instructor in Italy in the 1970s. Since then she has taught and tutored ABE, GED, and ESOL.

Bertha Cantú-Lujá has a masters in public administration from New Mexico State University. She has been an ABE instructor since 1980 at different sites in Texas and New Mexico. She teaches U.S. Citizenship, ESOL, Spanish GED, English GED, and has also been a public school teacher for 13 years.