Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

GED Battery No Substitute for Diploma

By Patrick Miller — June 19, 2006 3 min read

“What does the GED stand for?” is a deceptively simple question. Though many people have a vague notion of what it means to “get” a General Educational Development certificate, few can identify the “Educational Development” portion of the name. Many people believe it has something to do with “equivalency,” while others may even echo the comedian Chris Rock (himself a GED recipient) and claim it stands for “Good Enough Diploma.” In fact, the GED is not a diploma, nor, some research suggests, is it equivalent to one.

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The GED is a battery of five tests taken over the course of 7½ hours that cover mathematics, science, reading, writing, and social studies, designed to certify the mastery of high-school-level knowledge and skills.

Hosted and coordinated by the American Council on Education, a Washington-based umbrella group for higher education, through its GED Testing Service, the exam was developed in 1942 to help returning World War II veterans complete their studies and re-enter civilian life. The tests became available to civilians in 1947, and since 1973 have been given in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 2004, some 662,000 people nationwide took the GED tests.

The GED exams are updated periodically, the most recent revision occurring in 2002. To earn a GED now, test-takers must score at least a 410 out of a possible 800 on each of the five subject tests, with an overall average of 450 across all subjects. According to the ACE, the minimum score would be attained by 60 percent of graduating high school seniors if all were required to take the battery of tests.

Who Takes the Tests?

Although the GED is administered across the country, each state sets its own policies and procedures regarding who is eligible to take the exams. Each state also decides on the type of credential that is issued to those who receive a GED. Most states offer some type of “equivalency certificate,” while others offer “adult education diplomas” or another type of credential.

The GED is designed for adults who did not receive a high school diploma because they dropped out of school or failed to meet a state’s graduation requirements. The average age of a GED candidate in the United States in 2004 was 25, though a full 30 percent of candidates were ages 16 to 18.

More Teenagers Turn to the GED

Although the GED is often considered a test for adults, 30 percent of U.S. test-takers in 2004 were ages 16 to 18. In two states, Vermont and Hawaii, nearly half of GED candidates are high school age, while in Connecticut, Minnesota, and Ohio, fewer than one-fifth of candidates are 18 or younger.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: More Teenagers Turn to the GED

SOURCE: American Council on Education, 2006

Forty states and the District of Columbia require GED candidates to be at least 18 years old, but most jurisdictions offer case-by-case exemptions that allow candidates as young as 16 to take the tests. In most states, candidates participate in a series of test-preparation courses before taking the exams, and six states require candidates to pass a practice test.

According to the ACE, “the GED is not an educational end point, but the beginning of further education and lifelong learning.” Sixty-two percent of those who passed the GED in 2004 reported to the GED Testing Service that they took the tests for educational reasons, with 29 percent citing a desire to enroll in a two-year college and 21 percent in a four-year college.

But despite the aspirations of many test-takers, research suggests the GED is not equivalent to a standard high school diploma in the earning power it offers recipients or the pathway it provides into postsecondary education.

An April 2006 study by the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, found that 44 percent of dropouts who receive a GED later enroll in two- or four-year colleges, but only 10 percent succeed in earning a degree.

Studies examining the economic impact of passing the GED do not offer much comfort either. In 1993, University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman and colleague Stephen Cameron found GED holders were not significantly more likely than high school dropouts to land a job or earn high wages. Last year, Heckman and Paul A. LaFontaine re-examined the earlier research and found that GED recipients who did not continue on to college earned the same wages as uncertified high school dropouts, after correcting for differences in ability, leaving many with the credential no better off than they were before taking the tests.

Whether a GED is really “good enough” ultimately can be answered only by each individual who passes the tests. While it can provide a valuable second chance for those without a high school diploma who desire to continue their education, research suggests it should not be seen as equivalent to a high school diploma, or as an easy alternative to finishing high school by those considering dropping out.

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