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The Evolution of the G.E.D. Test: Entering the Educational Mainstream

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More than 40 years after its inception, the General Educational Development Test has evolved from an emergency wartime measure to provide equivalency diplomas for soldiers drafted out of high school, into a certification of attainment that has won widespread acceptance among educators and employers.

So thoroughly has the ged entered the educational mainstream that the test has been revised to reflect changes in high-school graduation requirements and emphasis on problem-solving skills, and scholarship programs that once would have been available only to high-school graduates are now open to recipients of equivalency diplomas.

Despite such indications of the increasing popularity and respectability of the equivalency diploma, however, educators and researchers warn that teen-agers should not drop out of school believing that the ged is in every respect equal to a regular high-school diploma, as anecdotal evidence suggests more students are doing.

"I think it's a good thing if students leaving school at least have the knowledge and skills necessary to pass the ged" said Julie Love, spokesman for the Council for Basic Education. "But the requirements needed to receive a high-school diploma vary so much from state to state, from district to district, and even within schools, that I can't say whether a ged is equivalent to the minimum requirements for a high-school diploma. I would like to see students receive their high-school diploma, if only because the ged so far implies the minimum rather than the maximum."

The General Educational Development Test was instituted by Unit-ed States Armed Forces Institute in 1942 to help returning soldiers who had entered the service before completing high school pursue their educational and vocational goals. In the 1950's, the program was broadened to include anyone who did not finish high school. And since then, millions of credentials have been issued through the program.

The ged program is administered by the American Council on Education, one of the largest national organizations of colleges and universities, which has supervised the equivalency-testing effort since the 1950's. The ace's Commission on Educational Credit and Credentials recently approved changes in the test that will go into effect in 1988. Some of those changes include: increased awareness of the role and impact of computer technology; stress on certain consumer skills, such as percentages and computation of simple interest; and a greater emphasis on the relationship between skills measured on the test and the working environment.

Douglas Whitney, associate director of the ged Testing Service, said a detailed description of the new tests will be available in spring 1985.

Increase in Late 1970's

About 776,185 people took the test in 1983; that figure has remained fairly constant since 1979, but it represents a dramatic increase over the past few decades. In 1958, the first single year for which data are available, 58,723 took the test. Now all 50 states, 10 U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and 10 Canadian provinces offer the test.

Two states, Arkansas and New York, do not charge for the tests. Other states either impose a flat rate of about $10 to $20 for taking the test or allow individual testing centers to set a fee, according to Mr. Whitney. He said an examinee pays the local testing center, not the ace directly, and that the money is divided between the ace and the center, depending on local overhead costs.

Standardized-Test Format

The five-part, six-and-a-half-hour test now includes sections on writing skills, social studies, science, reading skills, and mathematics.

The test involves multiple-choice questions that reflect the material taught in required courses in most high schools, according to Mr. Whitney. For example, in the writing-skills section, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, usage, sentence structure, and textual logic and organization are included; the social-studies part covers economics, geography, political science, U.S. history, and behavioral science; and the science section asks questions on biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics.

The test includes little material taught in elective courses, such as foreign languages, music, or home economics, according to Mr. Whitney.

The ged Testing Service does not provide any preparation courses for the test, he said, but every state department of education offers some sort of program, usually through adult-education classes, to help individuals prepare for the test. He said the classes could range from a "short brush-up" to a four or five-semester course.

The test is normed so that 30 percent of high-school seniors would fail it, according to its sponsors. To Ms. Love of the Council for Basic Education, however, that is "a reflection on some of the poor education that a lot of students receive, rather than a statement of how wonderful the ged is."

Test-Takers Profiled

In 1980, the American Council on Education's ged Testing Service conducted the first national survey of ged test-takers across the country. The survey found that the typical test-taker was a 21-year-old white woman, born in the United States, who worked in some type of service job, perhaps as a beautician, a teacher's aide, a waitress, or a janitor.

She had probably completed at least the 9th grade, received C's or better in school, and took the test either to better her job situation or to continue her education. She was most likely to be a resident of California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, or Texas.

The survey found that some 39 percent of the test-takers came from those six states, 58 percent were women, 79 percent were white, and 93 percent were born in the United States. About 88 percent said they had completed 9th grade, and about 41 percent of those surveyed cited personal reasons for not completing high school.

About 39 percent said they took the ged for job-related reasons. Another 30 percent took the tests in order to meet an admission requirement for college or vocational training, while 25 percent said they were taking it primarily for personal satisfaction.

'I Feel Better'

Mary Davis of Washington, D.C., earned a ged in 1982. Pregnant at the age of 16, she had dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. She came from a family of nine children, only two of whom graduated from high school.

She was married and divorced and raised four children. Then, at the age of 27, she decided to take the test. She spent a year relearning some subjects and studying test-taking skills at Shaw Junior High Community School, the same school she had attended before dropping out. She took the test and failed the first time.

But four years later, after three more months of classes, she faced the test again and passed.

"I took the ged more to motivate myself, and for my family, than hoping to get a better job," she said. "I feel better about myself since I took the test."

Ms. Davis, who works as a cartographist for the District of Columbia Department of Finance and Revenue, said that so far the test has not helped her get a better job or increased her salary, but she thinks interviewers now look upon her more favorably.

"When they're interviewing you, they notice that you took the ged and see that you didn't give up," she said.

Growing Younger

Mr. Whitney said that although the average age of the ged test-takers has remained fairly stable, the proportion of 17- and 18-year-olds taking the test has increased over the past decade. This is because the test has become more widely known, and people are deciding at an earlier age that they want some sort of educational certification, he said.

Most states require test-takers to be at least 17 or 18, Mr. Whitney said. In general, states also require ged candidates to have been out of school for at least a year, or to have passed their high-school graduation date, before they can become eligible to take the test.

Success Rates Similar

According to a follow-up study two years after the 1980 survey, high-school graduates and those with ged certificates have similar success rates when they continue on to college or careers.

The equivalency-diploma recipient who enrolls in some form of postsecondary education is most often a young adult who selects a community college or a middle-aged person who selects a career-transition program, such as a technical school or an apprenticeship, the survey found.

Of the 647 people polled in the follow-up study, 9 percent were enrolled full time in a postsecondary institute, 8 percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent reported that they had been enrolled at some time between taking the test and responding to the survey.

Although no national study has compared the college careers of equivalency-diploma recipients and high-school graduates, individual studies of selected colleges show that their success rates are about equal.

A study at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada, for example, found that there was no statistically significant difference in the grade-point averages of the two groups of students.

A similar study of a vocational program at Lake City Community College in Florida found that ged students actually earned higher grade-point averages in the community college than did high-school graduates, and that roughly equal proportions of students in both groups completed the program.

Merit Grants Offered

In recognition of the subsequent academic attainments of many ged "graduates," a $24-million federal merit-scholarship program that was signed into law Oct. 30 allows such students to compete for the awards with high-school graduates.

"It is somewhat unusual, but Senator Byrd felt there are a lot of legitimate reasons students have to drop out of high school, and they should not be left out," said Sally Laird, aide to Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who sponsored the measure. "In practical experience, we're not going to see a lot of people who took the ged get this, but we didn't want to exclude anyone."

Students' Employability

In the area of employment, a follow-up 18 months after the 1980 survey found that the ged generally helped those who took the test for job-related purposes. Of 383 individuals who passed the test and responded to the survey, 32 percent said they took the test believing that it would help them get a job promotion, and 20 percent said it did. The follow-up survey also found that 75 percent took the test with the expectation that it would help them qualify for a new job, and 52 percent reported that it led to the hoped-for result.

But the survey also found a higher rate of unemployment among 16-to-24-year-olds who took the ged than among other students, dropouts, and high-school graduates in the same age group. Mr. Whitney said he could not explain the high unemployment rate.

Employers' Perception

Employers tend to view the ged as the equivalent of a high-school diploma in hiring decisions, according to a 1983 survey cosponsored by the American Society for Personnel Administration, the American Society for Training and Development, and the American Council on Education.

That study found that nearly all of the 643 business officials surveyed considered high-school equivalency credentials to be as valid as a diploma in their hiring and promotion practices. More than 96 percent of the companies offer the same starting salaries and entry-level jobs to employees with a ged certificate as to those with diplomas. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1984.)

Almost half the employers also said that people hired with less than a high-school diploma could enhance their opportunities for promotion by obtaining a high-school-equivalency diploma.

John Bishop, associate director for the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at Ohio State University, said a study completed earlier this year of 1,000 employers found that graduation from high school was considered an important qualification for employment. Mr. Bishop said the survey did not specifically ask employers whether they distinguish between the ged and a high-school diploma.

"We did get a general sense of dissatisfaction that a high-school diploma doesn't mean anything anymore," he said. "I could imagine two reactions to the ged Because the test certifies a particular competen-cy, and a person has attained at least that level, that could be a good sign. However, it is also a sign that the person left high school, then changed his mind--sort of the sign of a quitter. ... We got the sense that a lot of employers feel the high-school diploma is important not because the student necessarily learned something, but because he stuck with it, and didn't give up on the whole thing."

Future of Test

Whether the test will continue to increase in popularity, and whether those who take it are as well-equipped to succeed as high-school graduates, may depend on the effects of increased high-school graduation standards, labor-market conditions, and the changes in store for the ged itself.

"It will depend on how much and in what direction high-school graduation requirements increase and what efforts are made by schools to encourage students who otherwise might drop out or take the ged," said Ms. Love. "If school districts and states mandate increased graduation requirements without phasing it in properly, we will see a tremendous increase in the number of students taking the ged"

She added that the test could serve as a "useful benchmark so that if the number of people taking the ged increases or decreases dramatically, you should look behind those numbers to see why the rise or fall is occurring."

Seen as Second Chance

And, the admitted strengths of the ged notwithstanding, other educators agree with Ms. Love that the examination should be viewed as a second chance for high-school dropouts, not as a justification for quitting school.

"Certainly the ged is preferable to students' simply not furthering their education, particularly in such cases as very young pregnancies; we have to be pleased they are going ahead and educating themselves,'' said Ted Comstock, president of the National School Boards Association. "But my feeling is that the test doesn't represent the same degree of education as a high-school diploma.

"My personal opinion--and I think it would be shared by other school-board members--is that the ged is a substitute, but not necessarily a good substitute. I think it's preferable for students to remain in school, to gain the benefit of that environment."

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