College & Workforce Readiness

The GED: New Tests, New Challenges

By John Gehring — January 23, 2002 11 min read
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When Michael Parker can bear the pain, he looks back. Through the shadows of memory, the 39-year-old sees himself as the bully who would hide his embarrassment at not being able to read with clenched fists and street smarts. He became a teenage father who dropped out of high school to care for his baby.

McKinley Goldfinger, expelled just three months before graduation, watched a high school diploma slip through his fingers. By his mid-20s, heroin had stuck its claws in him and had dragged him down into dark years of addiction.

Bored with classes, Steven Blatterman left middle school two years ago. Today, the 16-year-old works at a grocery store and dreams of one day designing video games for a living.

All three could have given up on improving their life chances through education, but they have found hope for something better here at the South Baltimore Learning Center, where they take classes every day to prepare for newly retooled GED exams.

Like some 519,000 people who earned a General Educational Development certificate last year, they believe that the high school equivalency credential will provide a passport to more education or a better job. And it’s also a way to put bad experiences with school behind them at last.

“I’m here to do what I should have done back in 1962—get my high school diploma,” said Mr. Goldfinger, 57, who lives in a group home for people battling drug addiction. “I want my grandson to be able to see me get my diploma.”

For Mr. Parker, coming to class every day with people who want to help him reach a goal has inspired a new perspective on the value of education. “This place right here is a savior,” he said. “I don’t know what I would be doing if it wasn’t for this program. Without a high school degree, there ain’t nothing coming your way. You’re getting scraps.”

GED candidates this year will face what people familiar with the exams say will be the most rigorous set of evaluations ever. The changes, the first adjustments made to the GED since 1988, have been tailored to reflect more accurately the equivalency of a high school graduate’s skills at a time when states have been focusing on standards-based education reforms and high-stakes tests.

Sometimes the butt of jokes—the comedian Chris Rock once referred to the GED as the “Good Enough Diploma"—the GED has nevertheless become a significant alternative educational pathway used by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

As seismic shifts in the economy have favored brainpower and technological skill over the brawn and sweat required by the manufacturing jobs of old, high school dropouts who once could have landed good-paying jobs at the local factory find themselves in need of more skills and credentials.

Today, one of every seven high school graduates earns his or her diploma through the GED program. Prominent GED-holders include the actor-comedian Bill Cosby, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, and U.S Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado. While the average age of a GED candidate is 24, anyone from a teenage dropout to a senior citizen might take the exam.

“We provide a second opportunity,” said Joan C. Auchter, the executive director of the GED Testing Service, which has administered the exams since 1942 as a subsidiary of the American Council on Education in Washington. “We see ourselves not as an ending point, but as a bridge that gives people a boost of self-esteem. People realize the need for more education in a complex society.”

World War II Roots

More than 500,000 Americans earned a GED in 1998, double the number of those who did so 30 years ago. Even so, fewer than 2 percent of adults in the United States and Canada who had not graduated from high school attempted to earn a high school credential by passing the GED exams.

About 70 percent of test-takers say they took the exams because they want to continue their education. Thirty percent report taking the exams to better their job prospects. Most colleges and universities have policies to admit GED graduates.

The GED has its origin in a World War II-era America looking to provide veterans with educational opportunities on their return home from foreign fronts. Higher education officials after the First World War realized that a policy of giving veterans college access as a benefit of military service didn’t work well because veterans often lacked the academic skills to do college-level work.

Anticipating the flood of veterans returning from World War II, military officials commissioned the ACE to develop the GED exams to help veterans without a traditional high school diploma take advantage of opportunities in college.

New York, in 1947, became the first state to bring the GED to the civilian population as an alternative way of gauging the equivalence of high school skills for school dropouts. By 1973, all the other 49 states and the District of Columbia had followed New York’s lead.

The GED Testing Service sets minimum scoring requirements, but states may choose to adopt higher passing scores. No state has done so yet for the new exams, but Florida, New Jersey, and Wisconsin had set a higher threshhold for the old exams. A handful of states require candidates to take a pretest that screens for whether or not someone is ready for the exams. States that don’t screen candidates often have lower passing rates.

Nationally, 70 percent of test-takers pass the exams. Until 1988, when an essay was added, the GED consisted entirely of multiple-choice questions. Under the old version of the exams, students could pass the GED without completing the written essay if they did well enough on the multiple-choice section. That also has changed under the new set of exams.

Alterations to the 71/2-hour exams in writing, reading, social studies, science, and mathematics stress analytical ability and problem-solving skills.

In math, for example, students who once faced only multiple-choice questions will now see 10 open-ended questions that require data analysis and the ability to evaluate pie charts, bar graphs, and tables. Students will be able to use a calculator for the first time on one section of the math exam.

The new writing test will have more questions about a text’s organization and will include business-oriented communications, such as letters, memos, and reports.

Any GED candidate who could not pass all five tests by Jan. 1 must start over with the new series of tests because scores from the old exams can’t be converted to the new assessment.

Those responsible for administering the exams around the country reported a rush of test-takers trying to pass the exams before the changes took effect. Both Ohio and Kentucky, for example, saw a 13 percent increase in test-takers in 2000, when public information campaigns began to let people know about the new assessments and candidates scrambled to take the old exams before the changes.

A range of educators from high schools and colleges around the country submit GED exam questions that are sent to national experts in specific academic areas for review and revision.

Caren Van Slyke, who for more than 20 years has prepared students for the exams and recently wrote a new GED-preparation book for the test-preparation company Kaplan Inc., said the changes to the exams have caught the attention of test-takers and those who tutor candidates.

“Higher-order thinking skills are getting a lot more attention on this exam,” Ms. Van Slyke said. “You have to be able to think and apply skills critically. They’re tougher, but they’re doable with the right preparation.”

Spur to Dropping Out?

Yet, even as the GED tests have gotten tougher, some observers worry that with high schools and teachers facing demands to raise students’ scores on state assessments, educators may be tempted to recommend struggling students drop out of high school and pursue a GED certificate instead.

Such pressure will only increase as the accountability movement matures, according to Pedro Portes, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Louisville.

While most school officials would never own up to encouraging a student to drop out, Mr. Portes said, “it is clear that in a high-stakes climate driven by accountability-related policies and tests, this is what will be occurring.”

Mr. Portes also said it’s troubling that nearly twice as many African-Americans as whites complete high school by earning a GED certificate, which he describes as “second rate” and not as effective as staying in school. The GED Testing Service could not confirm that more blacks than whites were earning a GED because it does not break down statistics by race.

In “GEDs Aren’t Worth the Paper They’re Written On,” a recent article in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow with the New York City-based think tank, argues that the exams “require scant knowledge of the academic content that even our knowledge-lite high schools manage to get across.”

The military has even stopped treating the GED as the equivalent of a high school diploma, he writes, because GED-holders performed more poorly on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test than did high school graduates and dropped out of military training at higher rates.

Mr. Green also argues that the GED distorts education statistics because many states and school districts with high dropout rates hide the problem in part by not counting GED candidates as dropouts.

Duncan Chapman, a senior research methodologist at the Urban Institute in Washington, says research shows that, in some cases, the existence of the GED alternative may actually encourage students to drop out of school.

Mr. Duncan found that, in most cases, the easier a state makes it for a candidate to take the GED exams, the higher the dropout rate. In states where there are more restrictions, such as a longer waiting period before dropouts can get a GED, dropout rates generally were lower, he found.

Mr. Chapman contends that the GED Testing Service should be more upfront about the limitations of the high school equivalency credential provided by the program. For example, he said, GED holders don’t receive nearly the amount of classroom instruction time that traditional graduates have. In most cases, he said, “it’s probably a good idea to discourage teenagers from getting a GED.”

Analyzing GED’s Value

While a GED certificate provides an important signal to employers and can open up greater job opportunities for high school dropouts, students who stay in school and earn a high school diploma fare better in the labor market, research has shown.

With support from the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, researchers Richard J. Murnane, a professor of education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, and John H. Tyler, an assistant professor of education, economics, and public policy at Brown University, examined the labor-market value of the GED for dropouts in their mid-20s, compared with the value of a conventional high school diploma.

They found that traditional high school graduates generally earned more because they were more likely than GED recipients to go on to college.

According to the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank, individuals without a high school diploma earn an average of $852,000 over a 40-year period, about $369,000 less than workers who complete high school, and about $1 million less than college graduates.

Only about 11 percent of GED-holders complete a year or more of postsecondary education.

The Harvard and Brown researchers found that for students who leave school with weak cognitive skills, a GED does show employers looking for entry-level workers that they had the discipline to complete a lengthy exam and have at least a basic level of skills.

Having a GED also allowed them to earn about 15 percent more five years after earning the credential than they would have otherwise. But white GED-holders ages 21 to 26 whose scores were just high enough to pass the exam still earned an average of only $11,000 a year in 1995 dollars, the researchers found.

Black males did not benefit from a GED when entering the job market, Mr. Murnane and Mr. Tyler found. They speculated that might be because a high percentage of African-American men had earned their certificates in prison, and that employers might thus have been reluctant to hire them.

Dropouts with stronger basic skills, defined by Mr. Murnane and Mr. Tyler as having 10th grade math scores in the upper half of national percentiles, do significantly better in the labor market than those GED-holders with weaker skills.

Those higher-skilled dropouts, at age 27, earned about 15 percent more than lower-skilled dropouts. The researchers found that for higher-skilled dropouts, a GED certificate had not improved their employment prospects, however, because those men and women already had stronger connections to employers and didn’t need the GED to serve as a sign of their basic competence.

Supporters and administrators of the program continue to see it as serving a valuable role, one that will be enhanced by the changes that took effect with the new year.

And while some who oversee GED programs for the states express concern about possibly higher failure rates with the new exams, Ralph Galvin, a specialist in adult education with Maryland’s state education department, says he supports the increased rigor of the new exams.

“I’m always concerned about the image of the GED,” he said. “If they are raising the bar for a high school diploma, it raises the ammunition of people who think the GED is a giveaway diploma.

“We can’t afford to have high school graduates knowing less than they have before.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as The GED: New Tests, New Challenges


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