MALVERN -- The graduates went without mortarboard caps Tuesday because of the security risk.
But the commencement ceremony for the Arkansas Correctional School held inside the Ouachita River Unit featured its own distinction: an address by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The governor told the inmates -- many transported from prisons across the state -- that it was the only invitation to speak to a graduating class that he accepted this year.
The 641 inmates who received recognition Tuesday for earning their GEDs formed the largest class since the prison system's school district implemented a tougher nationwide test in 2014.
The number of GED achievers reached a high of 942 during the 2010-11 school year, before collapsing to 233 two years ago, according to the school district.
After the high school equivalency exam abandoned paper in 2014 and moved to an electronic test as part of a public-private partnership, pass rates were reported to have dropped in many states using the new test.
A similar effect occurred in the Arkansas Correctional School, where many inmates are less familiar with using computers, said Superintendent Bill Glover.
But the biggest reason for the drop, according to Glover, was simply that the questions got harder.
The number of graduates jumped back up last year -- reaching 460 -- but that included inmates whose failed grades were retroactively made passing when testing officials lowered the minimum score from 150 to 145, according to Glover.
In his speech, the governor told the prisoners seated before him in white jumpsuits that the test they had passed is "not your granddaddy's GED."
The test includes sections on math, science, social studies, and reasoning through language arts, according to the testing service's website.
It was the math portion, specifically trigonometry, that held up Christopher Lamont Roberts, who passed the test on his second try this spring.
A former drum major in the Little Rock Central High School band of 1992, Roberts said he dropped out of school and fell into selling drugs, which landed him in prison after his probation was revoked last fall.
With two children, including one in college, Roberts said he decided to listen to his own advice and get an education.
"I cried when I got it because it took me 22 years-plus to get my GED," he said inside the computer lab at the Ouachita River Unit, where he sat in front of the No. 20 desktop computer, the one he said he used to take the test.
Glover attributed the larger increase in graduates this year to teachers having three years to get accustomed to the new test and using different teaching materials.
Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley said she hopes a new program providing some prisoners with electronic tablets to access educational programming will further bolster graduation rates in the prison system's school district.
The district, which operates schools in each state prison, holds one commencement ceremony each May for its GED graduates in the previous school year.
Also included in Tuesday's ceremony were 15 inmates who received associate and bachelor's degrees in biblical studies as part of a program with Central Arkansas Baptist Bible Institute. Another inmate received an associate degree in general studies from Arkansas State University-Newport.
Glover said Arkansas is the only state he was aware of that holds a single ceremony for prisoners across the system, rather than have separate ones at each unit.
Graduates who are released before the ceremony cannot attend because of a department policy restricting former inmates from visitation. Caps and gowns are also absent, a spokesman said, because they are concealing.
Still, the 700 seats set up for inmates and their families were filled to capacity, and straggling family members found extra seats among the department staff as Hutchinson began his address.
"It's important to the state of Arkansas that you have a future that's filled with opportunity," Hutchinson said. "I hope that's what motivates you [to learn], as it increases your opportunity when you get out of here."
As their names were called and the inmates walked single-file to receive their diplomas, a few ecstatic family members took the opportunity to shout support, rather than wait for the applause at the end.
When their cheers got too loud, or they jumped up, the family members were gently urged to settle down by corrections officers standing along a wall.
One mother, Linda Primm, said she drove 500 miles from her home in Texas to be in Malvern for the ceremony. Her son Marcus Williams earned his GED at the Pine Bluff Unit.
"I wasn't going to miss it because I'm proud of him," Primm said, adding that the GED is a near-universal requirement in looking for jobs.
Roberts, the inmate at the Ouachita River Unit, agreed. He said he felt his GED would allow him to be "productive" after his expected release this summer.
After failing the first time by a single point, Roberts said, his family pushed him when he didn't want to take it again.
A week later, he took it again and passed. Now, he said, he wants to enroll in the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College upon release.
Metro on 05/24/2017