Tougher Exam for GED Spurs Ups and Downs

By Sean Cavanagh — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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Participation in the GED testing program plunged by nearly 44 percent during the most recent recorded year, a drop-off that the exam’s sponsor attributes to an earlier rush by teenagers and adults to secure high school diplomas through the test before its minimum passing scores were raised.

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View the accompanying chart, “Taking the Plunge.”

The overall number of teenagers and adults who took the exam, officially known as the General Educational Development testing program, dropped from 1,069,899 in 2001—a record high—to 603,019 the next year, according to the American Council on Education, its sponsor.

The national passing rate in 2002 was slightly above the previous year’s rate.

Information on the GED is available at

GED officials believe that a large pool of eligible test-takers took the exam in 2000 or 2001, the two years before the GED Testing Service raised the passing scores in an effort to align them more closely with tougher high school academic standards.

Students who waited until 2002 to take the GED which assesses participants in five subject areas—were required to take all five sections in order to be eligible for a diploma.

Before the launch of the revised series of tests, the testing service had begun a campaign through radio, television, mail, and billboard advertising to spread the word about the revamped test, Joan Chikos Auchter, the executive director of the service, located in Washington, said last week in a conference call with reporters.

Longtime observers of the GEDthe primary option for people who quit school early but still want a diploma—agreed that the surge and drop were not surprising.

“We had people coming out of the woodwork, trying to pass the test before it changed,” said Paula Hill Elam, the GED administrator for Indiana. “Whenever the test changes, people panic.”

On the revised 2002 series of tests, the minimum score was raised from 400 to 410, on an 800-point scale, for each of the five sections of the test. The new standards are based on a random sample of 15,000 seniors getting regular high school diplomas. GED testing officials say that 40 percent of those seniors would fail the new exams, compared with 37 percent previously.

Ms. Elam said she had heard mixed opinions from test-takers about the new GED. Some said the questions were harder, while others—particularly adults—told her the questions seemed more rooted in real-world situations, which made them easier.

In making changes to the tests, the testing service also revised its statistical reporting to include more information on those who passed the exam, rather than those who simply took it. The new statistics show that 46.5 percent of those who passed reported having finished at least the 11th grade; another 28 percent said they had completed at least the 10th grade. (Officials did not have comparable numbers from previous years as of late last week.)

Those who passed the GED had signed up for the exam relatively quickly after leaving school, the study found. Almost 38 percent who passed in 2002 had been out of school for no more than two years, and nearly 24 percent had been out three to five years.

State Rates Vary

Overall, only 1 percent of adults in the United States today have earned a diploma by passing the GED, the study found. In 2002, 37.6 percent of those who passed the test were 18 or younger. Nationwide, the passing rate on the GED was 70.6 percent in 2002, compared with 69.8 percent in 2001 and 72.9 percent in 1994, said officials with the American Council on Education, a Washington-based research and lobbying organization for higher education.

But the report also shows that passing rates varied greatly by state. More than 96 percent of 2002 test-takers passed the GED in Delaware, for instance, while only 52 percent passed in neighboring New Jersey.

Ms. Auchter said that divergences in GED passing scores among states were influenced by differences in the academic preparation and demographics of their student and adult populations, and not by the quality of the GED services in those states.

Jay P. Greene, a researcher with the Manhattan Institute, a research organization based in New York City, agreed. He said that lower passing rates in some states could mean educators there were more effective in offering the exam to adults and teenagers who had relatively little academic preparation.

An Easy Out?

While officials with the testing service want to increase public awareness about the exam, they don’t want to encourage high school students to drop out with the intent of taking it later, Ms. Auchter said. “We’d love to [go] out of business,” she professed.

That is a noble goal, said Mr. Greene, who has written about the relatively limited benefits of GED credentials compared with traditional high school diplomas. Mr. Greene said there was “good evidence” that the easy availability of the GED encourages some students to drop out of school.

The best way for the GED Testing Service to market the test is as an educational opportunity—especially beneficial to older adults—rather than as a credential that carries the same weight as a high school diploma, he said.

“We should give people a second chance,” Mr. Greene said. “But we should recognize that a second chance is less [appealing] than a first chance.”

The average age of those who took the GED in 2002 was 25.

Duncan D. Chaplin, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a policy organization in Washington, who has studied trends among teenagers taking the GED, said benefits of their seeking traditional diplomas extend beyond improved postsecondary options and higher earning potential.

“It helps instill better cooperation skills, from working with other students and teachers,” said Mr. Chaplin, who had not yet seen the report. “There’s also a benefit to the idea of them completing a task.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Tougher Exam for GED Spurs Ups and Downs


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