College & Workforce Readiness

Higher Education Is Goal of GED Overhaul

By Catherine Gewertz — November 14, 2011 9 min read
Jose Franco, 25, top left, listens as Serge Shea instructs the GED Bridge to Health program at La Guardia Community College in New York. The program mixes GED curriculum with more rigorous college-level courses.
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The General Educational Development program, or GED, is undergoing the biggest revamping in its 69-year history, driven by mounting recognition that young adults’ future success depends on getting more than a high-school-level education.

Potent forces have converged to stoke the GED’s redesign. A labor market that increasingly seeks some postsecondary training, paired with dispiriting rates of college remediation and completion, has sounded alarm bells that young Americans are ill-equipped for prosperous futures.

In response, nearly every state has adopted common academic standards designed to elicit new kinds of skills from students. President Barack Obama has urged the nation to use such standards as a steppingstone to producing millions more people with certificates or degrees.

Policymakers recognize that such a push can’t focus only on getting high school graduates through college, however. It must also include the estimated 40 million Americans older than 16 who haven’t finished high school, ensuring that many of them earn completion credentials and use them as an entree to further training or education.

The project to redesign the GED is far-reaching. It includes not only reworking the content in the five subject-matter tests and transferring them from pencil-and-paper to computers, but also overhauling professional development for GED teachers, reworking curricula, and adding strong counseling supports to help students pass and plan their next steps.

Pivotal to the ambitious initiative is repositioning the GED as a step in a journey toward postsecondary training, rather than as an end in itself. Epitomizing that shift in thinking, the new exam, due out in 2014, will have two passing points: the traditional one connoting high school equivalency, and an additional, higher one signaling college and career readiness.

“The message is that you’re not here just to get a high school equivalency and walk out. You’re here to get prepared for careers and educational opportunities that are going to demand that you have even more skill,” said Nicole M. Chestang, the executive vice president of the GED Testing Service. Established this year to oversee the redesign, the organization is a joint venture of the American Council on Education, or ACE, which created the GED, and the education publishing giant Pearson.

“What we’ve all learned is that completing only high school—whether through a diploma or a GED—isn’t enough to prepare you,” Ms. Chestang said. “You need to use that credential to open doors to more training or education.”

Value Questioned

Situating the GED as a pathway to higher education echoes its original intent. The first exams, in 1942, were envisioned as a way for returning World War II veterans to complete high school and use the GI Bill to attend college. In 1949, the first year statistics are available for nonmilitary test-takers, 39,000 people took one or more of the five sections of the test: reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies. By 2010, that number had risen to 750,000.

While Mr. Franco does his homework in the living room of his home in Maspeth, N.Y., last week, his sister-in-law Adaliza Franco readies her children, Jaylin Diaz, 1, and Adrian Depena, 8, for bed. The family of nine has to find another place to live after the landlord sold the house.

The GED is widely used as a high-school-completion tool by those in the military and in prisons, and by dropouts who are too old for the public school system. Although one-quarter of those who take the test are 16 to 18 years old, the typical GED candidate is 26, has completed 10th grade, and has been out of school nine years, according to ACE data.

But while the test has helped thousands move forward, it is dogged by criticism that it doesn’t reflect high-school-level achievement. Officials in New York City, for instance, said last December that the passing score reflects only middle-school-level content and skills. The city is helping pilot a new, accelerated GED curriculum and accompanying supports in a subdistrict of alternative schools.

Even as the GED is overhauled, scholars continue to debate its value.

Some research has found that GED recipients earn no more than high school dropouts; a 1993 study found them “indistinguishable” from high school dropouts in the labor market. Other research concludes that they earn more than dropouts, and nearly as much as those with high school diplomas. But a 2010 study attributed that added earning power to personal traits and family characteristics that GED passers shared with diploma earners, such as higher levels of parental education.

One of the co-authors of that study, Nicholas S. Mader, said that any next-generation GED program would have to incorporate “soft skills,” such as persistence and study skills, if recipients are to stand a better chance in work and higher education than dropouts.

“The opportunity they need through higher education is not just about academic proficiency,” said Mr. Mader, a postdoctoral scholar in economics at the University of Chicago. “It’s as much about these soft skills, and I am skeptical that a new GED program can impart those.”

Shift in Content

When it comes to some postsecondary measures, GED recipients do better than high school dropouts. According to a 2010 study by the Washington-based ACE, 43 percent enroll in certificate or college programs within six years, compared with 20 percent of those who don’t pass the test and 64 percent of high school graduates. But few complete more than a year of coursework.

A 2009 study by the ACE followed 1,000 people who took the GED and found that only 307 had enrolled in postsecondary education five years later. Three-quarters dropped out after one semester, and only 17 completed a degree or certificate.

Such outcomes have fueled criticism of the widespread view that a GED is “equivalent” to a high school diploma.

In a 2009 guide to improving high school graduation rates, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz urged states not to see the GED and a diploma as interchangeble. Widely known for his work identifying schools that are “dropout factories,” Mr. Balfanz noted that just one in 10 GED recipients earns a college degree, compared with one in four who earn diplomas. He also noted that GED recipients don’t count as high school graduates under No Child Left Behind.

Mr. Mader and others who study the GED worry that making it easily available to 16- to-18-year-olds induces dropouts by offering a quicker, easier alternative. The GED Testing Service recognizes that risk, said spokesman CT Turner.

“We will never market preparation materials to that age group,” he said. “We want 16- and 17-year-olds to stay in school.”

In redesigning the exam, the testing service will shift content to reflect changes in current high schools’ curricula and the new common standards in math and English/language arts, said Mr. Turner.

For instance, the one required short essay in the current exam will likely morph into two longer essays and four shorter ones, and will be “embedded” across all subject areas of the test, he said. An example in social studies might be asking students to write about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The writing and reading exams will also be collapsed into one, Mr. Turner said.

Mr. Franco spends time with his daughter, Damaris Franco, before her mother, Anna Santa Maria, picks her up from PS 58 School of Heroes. Mr. Franco was a single father until last week when the 5-year-old went to live with her mother to give him more time to study for his GED exam in December.

Currently, some states are piloting a computer-based version of the GED, and testing-service officials hope all states will move the test to computer by 2014. That would enable quicker scoring of the multiple-choice sections and the use of “innovative” item types that can gauge a wider array of skills, Mr. Turner said. It can also facilitate quicker, one-stop test registration.

Establishing the cutoff scores required for high school equivalency and for college readiness will involve panels of expert input, as well as testing the exam on students in high school and college to gauge performance levels, Mr. Turner said. Currently, the GED passing score is set at a level that 60 percent of high school students could pass, he said. But whether that level remains the same in the new test, he said, is still “open to discussion.”

Along with the revised exam, a new diagnostic assessment will be designed to allow GED teachers to gauge their students’ skills down to a 3rd grade level, to help them tailor instruction, Mr. Turner said.

When it comes to preparation and support for students, and training instructors, a challenging aspect of the redesign is the decentralization of the GED program.

About half of those who take the test prepare for it on their own, according to the GED Testing Service. The other half do so through adult education programs, which are run by state and local organizations, including community literacy groups and others, using a wide array of privately developed instructional materials.

The testing service will create professional-development modules that guide teachers through the new content and also help them adopt a quasi-counseling role, in which they help students see the exam as a step toward postsecondary education.

The organization will also set up an approval process for curriculum developed to reflect the new GED, said Ms. Chestang, the executive vice president. It will use its website as a “hub” housing GED resources, including the professional-development modules and approved curricula.

Forming Partnerships

The success of the initiative, however, lies in multiple partnerships with state adult education coordinators, colleges, employers, publishers, community literacy programs, and a host of other entities that shape the curriculum, instruction, and counseling functions around the exam itself, Ms. Chestang said.

“We need to create smoother pathways in all parts of the system to help our industry think about reimagining itself,” she said. “It’s going to take a mammoth effort.”

Some leading-edge GED programs are already beginning to reflect key shifts in thinking about the exam.

La Guardia Community College has long hosted GED classes. But the Long Island City, N.Y.-based campus started a GED Bridge to College and Careers program in 2007 because low postsecondary enrollment suggested the need for a profoundly different approach.

They “contextualized” and extended instruction, so that students learn the GED curriculum, as well as more rigorous, college-level material, through the lens of either business or health care, said Gail O. Mellow, the community college’s president.

The experience helps students form career and education plans and see their study as more relevant to those plans, she said.

In the health-care strand, for instance, students might approach GED preparation through case studies, a genre common to the health-care field. They will learn material pertinent to the exam, but also additional content and skills that prepare them for credit-bearing college coursework, Ms. Mellow said, such as writing extended essays that draw on multiple sources.

Course content was informed by consultation with La Guardia faculty members. Spanning 14 weeks, the courses are held on the college campus and taught mostly by full-time teachers with master’s degrees. In addition to presenting academic content, instructors teach transitional skills—applying for financial aid, for instance—and “college knowledge,” such as understanding the concept of a credit hour. And the program’s supports continue through students’ first semester at La Guardia, if they enroll there after passing the GED, Ms. Mellow said.

The program has seen dramatic changes in the proportion of its students who make it into college. Before it began, only 35 percent of the students in the GED program enrolled in certificate, associate, or bachelor’s-degree programs. In last year’s cohort of Bridge graduates, 80 percent did, according to Amy Dalsimer, the campus director of precollege academic programming.

“If we are going to take seriously an American agenda that moves the number of people with postsecondary degrees up to where it should be, we need to be serious about students who must take the GED and move on,” Ms. Mellow said. “Making that connection with community college is an essential part of flipping the GED into an aspirational degree.”

Special coverage of the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as GED Revision Opens Path To Higher Ed.


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