G.E.D., Turning 50, Eyes Debate Over Student Standards

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Since World War II, the General Educational Development program has offered more than 12 million high-school dropouts a ticket back into the educational mainstream.

Through tests measuring the "major and lasting outcomes" of a high-school education, the program has issued credentials that employers and college-admissions officials recognize as evidence that G.E.D. graduates meet de facto high-school academic standards.

Now, as the program celebrates its 50th anniversary, educators and policymakers at the national level are on the verge of redefining what it means to be a high-school graduate, as well as how to measure that attainment. Such changes, educators point out, would have a dramatic effect on the G.E.D.

This week, for example, a Congressionally mandated panel is expected to issue a strong recommendation that the United States move toward national standards for student performance and a new system of assessments tied to the standards.

As such standards emerge, said Ramsay W. Selden, the director of the state education-assessment center of the Council of Chief State School Officers, "the G.E.D. is going to have to adjust its content and approaches to ensure that it measures national standards."

"There can only be one standard for completion of high school," Mr. Selden argued. "There's got to be a single set of national standards. The G.E.D. has got to be part of the system."

At the same time, others note, the move in many schools toward providing students more flexibility in how they demonstrate academic competence could encourage states and districts to allow high-school students on the verge of dropping out to take the G.E.D. before they are scheduled to graduate. Such use of the test is currently authorized in seven states on a pilot basis.

Officials from the G.E.D. Testing Service of the American Council on Education, which runs the program in conjunction with state education departments, say the high-school equivalency program will adapt to whatever changes in secondary education emerge from the current round of reforms.

Still, the G.E.D. program and any new national system of assessments appear certain to maintain their distinct identities.

Although one state--Oklahoma-has proposed using the G.E.D. as a high-school exit examination, G.E.D. officials and observers agree that the equivalency test is unlikely to replace high-school student assessments any time soon.

Likewise, the proposed national assessments are unlikely to replace the G.E.D. The program, Mr. Selden said, will probably remain true to its 50-year-old mission of providing a second chance for adults who lack high-school diplomas--currently an estimated 50 million Americans.

"The G.E.D. is a culture," Mr. Selden said. "It has a lot of proud participants and adherents. They would continue to prefer to use it as a test, even if it is deemed equivalent to other tests available."

Origins in the Military

Although a forerunner of the G.E.D. concept dates back to World War I, the program got under way in 1942, when officials from the U.S. military sought a way to ease the return of servicemen and servicewomen to civilian life.

Toward that end, Cornelius Turner, a former school superintendent assigned to the U.S. Armed Forces Institute in Madison, Wis., worked on developing a test that would enable outgoing military personnel without high-school diplomas to demonstrate high-school-level knowledge and skills in order to be eligible for enrollment at the institute or a civilian college.

Working with some of the leading testing experts of the time--including Ralph Tyler of the University of Chicago and E.F. Lindquist of the University of Iowa--Mr. Turner developed what he called the "General Educational Development" tests. Such tests, he said, would measure the lasting outcomes of schooling, such as the ability to comprehend and to think, rather than recall of specific facts.

After World War II, Mr. Turner, who joined the American Council on Education, a Washington-based association of colleges and universities, sought to extend the G.E.D. program to the civilian sector. In 1947, he persuaded the New York State Department of Education to certify high-school dropouts who passed the test as having the equivalent of a high-school diploma. Other states soon followed suit.

By 1963, when California adopted the program, it had spread to all 50 states and all the U.S. territories. In 1969, it began in each of the Canadian provinces as well.

Currently, about 700,000 adults take the test each year, and about two-thirds of these earn diplomas. In 1990, one-eighth of all the high school diplomas issued in the United States--431,225--were through the G.E.D. program.

Ronald Gillum, the director of adult extended education for the Michigan Department of Education, said he expected the recession to increase the number of test takers.

"In a downturn, there is always a rush to go back to school," he said. "Here in an industrial state with auto factories, a huge number of individuals were working for long periods of time in good jobs without diplomas, Now, faced with the prospect of layoffs, they go back [to school] ."

Although many G.E.D. candidates go directly into the job market, an increasing proportion--a record 56 percent in 1990--indicate that they plan to pursue further education. A number of G.E.D.-diploma holders have gone on to prominent careers, among them Gov. James J. Florio of New Jersey, the entertainer Bill Cosby, and the chocolate-chip-cookie entrepreneur Wally (Famous) Amos.

Some Employers, Colleges Wary

As Cornelius Turner had intended, many, though not all, employers and higher-education institutions regard the G.E.D. certificate as the equivalent of a high-school diploma.

In fact, according to Esther F. Schaeffer, the senior vice president of the National Alliance of Business, many employers would prefer to hire a candidate with a G.E.D. over one with a regular diploma. "They know [G.E.D. graduates] have met certain standards, they have skills," she said. "You can't be sure of that with a diploma."

But Ms. Schaeffer acknowledged that some employers are hesitant to hire workers with a G.E.D. certificate, because the credential indicates that the candidate at one time failed to complete school.

"What does an employer look for? "Some sense of stick-to-it-ive-ness," Ms. Schaeffer said. "The G.E.D. is some indication [the prospective employee] didn't stick with it."

One large employer that takes that attitude is, ironically, the U.S. armed services, the agency that started the program.

Although the military does not have a policy against accepting recruits with a G.E.D. diploma, the services prefer those who have a regular diploma, according to Lieut. Col. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesman. Some studies have found that recruits who completed high school in the normal way tend to have a lower attrition rate than those with "alternative credentials," Colonel Hart said.

College-admissions officials are also divided over whether to accept recipients of a G.E.D. certificate.

Linda Clement, the director of admissions at the University of Maryland at College Park, said that her experience has shown that "subscores on the G.E.D. are a good predictor of success freshman year."

As a result, she said, her campus--the flagship of the Maryland system--is "generous" in admitting students with G.E.D. diplomas.

Ms. Clement noted, however, that the University of Maryland's practice is not universal. A study by one of her graduate students, she said, found that several flagship campuses elsewhere view admissions of G.E.D. holders as "exceptions."

But such attitudes may be changing as colleges seek older students to compensate for the shrinking pool of 18- to 24-year-olds, said Frank Burtnett, the executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors. On many campuses, older adults number a fourth of total enrollment, he said. "Some of these people are people who have had to reconstruct their portfolios," Mr. Burtnett said. "They stopped out, or dropped out, along the way."

Yielding Benefits?

Perhaps as a result of the divergent practices of employers and college-admissions officials, researchers have offered conflicting views on the success of G.E.D. holders.

A well-publicized study by two University of Chicago economists, for example, concluded that those with G.E.D. diplomas fared little better economically than high-school dropouts.

The study, published last fall as a "working paper" by the National Bureau of Economic Research Inc., found that people with G.E.D. diplomas earned wages no higher than those without diplomas who had the same number of years of schooling. The wages of both groups, the study found, were far below those of high school graduates.

But Janet Baldwin, the assistant director for policy research of the G.E.D. Testing Service, criticized the Chicago researchers' study as flawed. She said, for example, that it was based on a small, unrepresentative sample of G.E.D.-diploma holders.

In addition, Ms. Baldwin said, the study examined only young men ages 25 and 28. Since the average age of G.E.D.-Certificate earners is 26, she pointed out, such people have had fewer years of post-diploma experience on the job than high-school graduates, who typically earn a diploma at age 18.

As a better study, Ms. Baldwin cited a forthcoming analysis by Hal Beder, a Rutgers University researcher.

In that study, Mr. Beder, an associate professor of adult education at Rutgers's graduate school of education, examined the careers of Iowa G.E.D.-diploma holders 2, 5, and 10 years after earning their diplomas. He found that, in nearly every case, the G.E.D. earners gained on virtually every economic measure--including job satisfaction, skill levels, the number of hours worked per week, acquisition of property, job benefits, and savings--and that the gains increased over time.

"Earning the G.E.D. does yield benefits, although it is not a quick fix," Mr. Beder said. "It does not yield some short-term benefit that decreases. It accrues over time with substantial interest."

Mr. Beder acknowledged that his study does not compare the economic gains of G.E.D. holders with those of dropouts and high-school graduates. But he noted that those with a G.o.P. certificate outperformed the statewide average on every economic indicator.

Higher Standards Predicted

But even if the G.E.D. leads to success in the current job market, it may not do so in the future, when skill levels will be more demanding, according to Ms. Schaeffer of the National Alliance of Business.

"Right now, the G.E.D. tries to capture what the state feels a high school student should know," she said. "I don't think that's nearly high enough for the workplace of the future."

But the move to set high standards for students to meet such future requirements will almost surely lead to higher standards for the G.E.D., most observers agree.

"If standards are going up for high school kids, the G.E.D. will want to have the test comparable to" such standards, said Betsy Brand, the assistant U.S. secretary of education for adult and vocational education.

Jean H. Lowe, the director of the G.E.D. Testing Service, said that the way the test is designed ensures that it matches standards for high school seniors. Although in previous years the American Council on Education contracted out the development of the G.E.D., since 1988 the test has been developed in-house.

As each test is created, Ms. Lowe said, the testing service invites high-school teachers to review every test question to make sure that the test reflects actual high-school curricula.

In addition, she said, the test is administered each year to a sample of high-school seniors; minimum passing scores are set so that 30 percent of the seniors would fail the test.

"If schools change, yes, we will change," Ms. Lowe said. "But we do not know yet what that [change] will be."

Doubts in Oklahoma

Because of the close alignment of the G.E.D.'s content with high-school curricula, some educators have proposed that G.E.D. officials drop their traditional resistance to the tests' use in school and allow states and districts to administer the examination to high-school students.

Last year, for example, Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction, Sandy Garrett, won approval from the A.C.E.'s commission on educational credit and credentials to allow the state to consider using the equivalency test as a high-school exit exam. (See Education Week, April 3, 1991 .) Ms. Garrett said the move was { = prompted by a legislative mandate to impose an exit test beginning in 1992, even though the state had planned to revise its curriculum in the 1993-94 school year. "You can't assess boys and girls on the new curriculum on the graduation test," she pointed out. "It's not developed yet."

The G.E.D., Ms. Garrett said, could be used in the interim to provide "baseline data" on student performance. "I feel confident in the G.E.D. as a comprehensive measure," she said.

But lawmakers objected to the Oklahoma superintendent's plan, in part because they considered the G.E.D. test not rigorous enough. In response, they adopted legislation to delay the test mandate.

That legislation was vetoed for unrelated reasons, and the legislature is expected to reconsider the issue early this year. Ms. Garrett said some lawmakers may push for the use of the G.E.D. as an interim test. 'the G.E.D. iS not ruled out," she said.

Not 'Minimum Competency'

Mr. Selden of the state chiefs' organization said the Oklahoma legislators' objections to the G.E.D. reflected a widespread misconception about the test.

"People think it's a lower-level, minimum-competency test, not a full-fledged test to the equivalence of secondary-level standard," Mr. Selden said. In fact, he said, the test contents "are comprehensive, substantive, and rigorous."

The seven-and-a-half-hour test covers the major areas of the high-school curriculum: science, social studies, literature, and mathematics. Although the test hews largely to a multiple-choice format, Mr. Selden noted, it added a writing assessment in 1988 and revised its questions to focus more on higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills.

The questions tend to focus on real-world contexts that adults confront, Ms. Lowe said. For example, questions about civics might ask about voting or school-board meetings.

The misconceptions about the G.E.D. stem in part from the test-taking population, Ms. Lowe suggested. In fact, she said, only 6 percent of 6.E.D. test takers in a 1989 survey said they left school for academic reasons; three-fourths said they had a C average or better in high school.

In addition, the survey found that 84 percent of the test takers had studied an average of 30.5 hours for the test. State education departments, with funding from the federal adult-education programs, offer G.E.D.-preparation programs.

"People think because dropouts can take and pass it, it's not difficult," Ms. Lowe said. "That's not true."

The Wrong Signal?

In addition to the Oklahoma proposal, seven states--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin--have launched efforts to administer the G.E.D. to Current high-school students.

Under these pilot programs, school officials identify students who are at risk of dropping out of school and who appear likely to be able to pass the G.E.D. They then enroll them in a training program to prepare for the equivalency exam.

Carolyn M. Klein, the director of the pilot program for the Texas Education Agency, said it is aimed at those she called the "academically fragile": able students who are considering dropping out of school for personal or other reasons.

But the program, which has been operating in 200 school districts over the past two years, has had "mixed" results, according to Ms. Klein.

Some 40 percent of the participants drop out of school before taking the G.E.D. test, she noted. However, of those who remain and take the test, nearly all have received their G.E.D. diplomas. And most of those students said they would have dropped out of school if the program had not been available.

"If they leave, and we try to capture them as adults, we'd lose them," Ms. Klein said.

Despite such successes, some educators remain leery of the program, according to Ms. Brand of the U.S. Education Department.

Critics say it is a "signal to kids that they can take a test that some people view as a shortcut to getting out of school," she said.

But Timothy J. Dyer, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said options like the G.E.D. program for at-risk youths will become increasingly common as educators look for alternatives to current "seat time" requirements.

Although educators consider the "whole high-school experience" valuable, he said, many also argue that what matters is that students are able to demonstrate competence in academic subjects.

"If you can demonstrate mastery of algebra," Mr. Dyer said, "why take an algebra course?"

"That needs to be in the reform debate,'' he said.

Officials from the G.E.D., for their part, say their primary mission should remain, as it has for half a century, to serve adults who lack high-school credentials.

"We would like nothing better in the world than if the dropout rate were zero," Ms. Baldwin of the G.E.D. Testing Service said.

For now, she added, "There are 50 million adults without diplomas. We have many, many lifetimes to go [to serve that group]."

Vol. 11, Issue 18, Pages 1, 10-11

Published in Print: January 22, 1992, as G.E.D., Turning 50, Eyes Debate Over Student Standards
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