If you believe the official U.S. government education statistics, nearly nine Americans out of ten graduate from high school, and the rate has been moving steadily upward for two decades. Alas, this happy scenario is a complete illusion. The real percentage of kids graduating is much lower—dismally low for blacks and Hispanics—and things are getting worse, not better. The conjuring trick that makes the real graduation rates disappear is to treat the General Education Development (GED) credential as equivalent to a standard high school diploma. But the GED isn’t the “high school equivalency diploma” that many of its recipients mistakenly call it—far from it.
The GED test got its start in World War II as a way to help out returning veterans who had entered military service before getting their high school diplomas. By passing the new government-approved test, designed by the creators of the American College Testing Program and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, these older students, without trudging back to high school, could prove to colleges or to prospective employers that they had sufficient mastery of required high school subjects to qualify for a diploma.
Today, the GED’s raison d’être is essentially the same as it was in the 1940s—to give those diploma-less students who deserve it a way to pursue educational or job opportunities that require a secondary education. But the clientele, mostly high school dropouts in their late teens or early twenties, is far more dysfunctional than the solid vets of decades ago. “Some students,” says Sarah Marvin, a GED preparatory course instructor in Davie, Florida, “dropped out of high school because their mothers threw them out of the house for a boyfriend: the mother might seem too old by having a 16-year-old kid around.” Others, she adds, simply messed up and need a second chance. Carlos (by teacher request, I have changed most student names), a GED student at Sheridan Technical
Center in the nearby town of Hollywood, is a case in point: he was cruising through high school, getting As and Bs, but grew bored and quit. Other GED students I spoke with left school after their families ran into economic difficulties, or dropped out because of an unexpected pregnancy.
Some of these students will no doubt use the credential as a springboard to future accomplishment. New Yorker Jane Berger, to take a striking GED success story, dropped out of high school in the 1960s after going astray as a teenager. By 1990, older and wiser, she wanted to apply to Hunter College in Manhattan to work toward her B.A., and so needed a GED. (In order to tap federal funds, even schools with de facto open enrollment like Hunter require the credential in the absence of a regular diploma.) Passing the test with ease—“for the most part, the answers were in the questions,” she says—she eventually completed her Hunter degree and now coordinates research projects at the Rockefeller Institute.
But Berger is far from typical. For most GED holders, the credential makes little real difference in life outcomes. Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman and colleague Stephen Cameron have found GED holders to be “statistically indistinguishable” from high school dropouts: they’re not significantly more likely to land a job or to have higher hourly wages. Other studies find that GED holders do slightly better than dropouts but still lousy compared with regular high school grads—who themselves, in today’s knowledge-based economy, earn only 54 percent of what college grads make, according to 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.
The GED holders who go on to post-secondary education (about 60 percent) also compare poorly with high school grads who do so. Almost three-quarters of GED holders who enroll in community colleges fail to finish their degrees, compared with 44 percent of high school graduates. In a four-year college, the prospects are even grimmer: unlike Jane Berger, an astonishing 95 percent of GED holders don’t finish, compared with 25 percent of high school grads.
Clearly, the GED doesn’t come close to being equivalent to a high school diploma in terms of life chances. But why do GED holders fare so poorly? One reason is that jumping the GED hurdle—the test is actually five exams, covering literature, math, science, social studies, and writing, and lasting seven and a half hours from start to finish—requires scant knowledge of the academic content that even our knowledge-lite high schools manage to get across. The GED Testing Service, the national organization that designs and administers the GED, has made it remarkably easy to pass, and about 60 percent of the 833,000 or so students taking it yearly do. “It’s the Wizard of Oz; they give you a piece of paper,” recently noted a skeptical Lois Quinn, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, who has written a critical history of the GED.
The GED test taker doesn’t need to know much factual information. A history question on the social studies component, for example, doesn’t require him to know that most U.S. immigrants between 1920 and 1929 came from Europe; it only asks him to identify this fact correctly in a multiple-choice question after reading a short, simple paragraph about it. The exam tests only basic reading comprehension, in other words, not historical knowledge. Science questions often consist of interpreting a graph or a chart correctly rather than knowing anything about chemical properties or physical laws. The literature exam, like its social studies counterpart, tests reading ability, not whether the student has ever read The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick.
True, the GED’s math section does require some factual knowledge, but the requirement isn’t demanding. A typical question might ask students to identify how many feet and inches equal 45 inches; the test taker merely needs to remember how many inches are in a foot. Plus, students can use calculators on all computation questions. The writing section mostly asks students to choose from among different versions of a sentence the one that’s grammatically correct. The most intimidating part of the section is the essay composition.
The grading of the GED is anything but tough. To pass the math component, for example, a student needs to answer only 22 out of 56 questions correctly. If he just guessed, odds are he’d get 11 right. On the social studies, literature, and science exams, he needs to answer only about one-third of the questions correctly to pass. Making the GED easier still, test takers can retake each subject exam as many times as they want, until they get over the hurdle. Though the GED will be updated in 2002, it won’t get any harder to pass.
Small wonder that students don’t need to go through anything like a full-fledged program of study to get their GEDs. The average GED recipient passes the test after just 30 hours of class time and study. If that same student dropped out of school before the tenth grade (as many school leavers do), he would have lost more than 850 hours of class time. The Jobs Corps found that GED students with a fifth-grade education—that’s right, fifth-grade—could pass the test after 200 hours of instruction.
GED student Carlos admits the road to the GED is a lot shorter than the one to high school graduation. “In high school, you spend time on something like Thomas Jefferson and stuff,” he says matter-of-factly, “but we don’t need that.” Recalls GED holder and Hunter College grad Jane Berger, “The GED definitely didn’t test the material covered in high school.” Melinda, another student at Sheridan Tech, agrees. “Everyone here just wants to pass the test and get on with it,” she stresses.
Melinda’s impatience points to a second reason that GED recipients do so much worse than regular high school grads. Preparing for the GED does not offer the kind of social discipline—the lessons in perseverance and self-control—that one gains by sticking it out in high school, however much it drives you nuts.
Janice Laurence of the Human Resources Research Organization, a longtime critic of the GED, calls this process of sticking it out in high school “seat time,” and she sees it as crucial to life success. In high school, you learn to put up with all sorts of irritations, from mind-numbing boredom to taking an exam you don’t feel like studying for or dealing with a teacher who treats you like a moron—or is one herself. “To graduate,” Laurence tells the Chicago Tribune, “students must learn to cooperate with their instructors and get along with their peers.” The kind of maturity and tolerance for rules that one develops in submitting to such common trials proves invaluable later on in higher education and in the workforce, where unwelcome tasks and maddening people can be regular facts of life.
GED preparatory courses don’t offer anything comparable. GED students come when they want, leave when they want, and work at their own pace; they lack formal instruction, assignments, and due dates. “They’re adults,” remarks Leo Seewaldt, a GED instructor at Sheridan Tech. “I can’t make them be here if they don’t want to.” This loosey-goosey approach might make it easier for some motivated students to jump the GED hurdle swiftly and move on to college or work. But it’s a recipe for further failure for the many GED seekers who are poorly socialized and lacking in structure and discipline already: economist Heckman has found that GED recipients admitted on a survey to higher rates of vandalism, shoplifting, drug use, and fighting at school than did diploma holders and high school dropouts.
Of course, it’s possible that GED holders dropped out of high school in the first place and then don’t do as well as high school grads in later life because they are not very smart. On the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, which measures both academic knowledge and cognitive ability, the average GED recipient gets a grade of 65, compared with the average high school graduate’s 76 and the average high school dropout’s 46. Because GED holders scored so poorly compared with grads—and because a disastrous 37 percent of them were dropping out of military training, compared with a similarly dismal 39 percent of high school dropouts but only 20 percent of diploma holders—armed-forces recruiters have stopped treating the GED as equivalent to a regular high school diploma.
In all likelihood, GED holders’ relatively limited life chances result from a combination of all three of the above causes—lack of information, lack of social skills, and low I.Q.—in unknown proportions.
Calling the GED the equivalent of a standard high school diploma isn’t just a problem of semantics. It has profoundly distorted the way we calculate and interpret education statistics.
In one bit of legerdemain, some states and school districts with sky-high dropout rates partly hide their problems by refusing to call GED-seekers, many of who will never get their credential, dropouts. The Dallas Independent School district, for example, claims an annual dropout rate of just 1.3 percent. But the district had nearly 10,000 eighth-grade students in 1993 and only 5,659 graduates in 1998, when those eighth-graders should have graduated. Controlling for student population fluctuations, my calculations show the real dropout rate is close to 50 percent: the 1.3 percent figure is risible. New York City pulls the same scam. By refusing to count GED students as dropouts, it comes up with a 19.3 percent dropout rate. The true rate is much worse, almost 50 percent.
Another example: when the U.S. Census announces that 87 percent of all U.S. students complete high school, this figure winds up repeated by the Department of Education, education researchers, and school officials as proof of a generally decent state of affairs in the nation’s schools. But if we subtract the GED (and other alternative degrees) from the census numbers, we find that only 77 percent of students graduate. For minority students, the percentages are even lower, with just 73 percent of blacks and 55 percent of Hispanics gaining standard diplomas.
Worse, these numbers are almost certainly too high. The census assumes that respondents grasp the difference between the GED and a regular diploma and honestly describe which one, if either, household members have obtained—a dubious supposition, given the widely perpetuated falsehood that they’re basically the same. Compare eighth-grade enrollments in the fall of 1993 with diplomas from 1998 (when those students should have been graduating), and then correct for changes in the size of the student population, and you get a more accurate national graduation rate of 74 percent, a black rate of 56 percent, and a Hispanic rate of 54 percent—a far cry from what the government numbers convey.These real graduation rates are deplorable, but the trend over time is even more dismaying, since it is dipping. As the number of GEDs has skyrocketed, going from 227,000 in 1970 to 516,000 in 1999, the number of students—high school and GED added together—has stayed roughly the same, which means that the percentage of graduation-age students who have received a regular diploma has been gradually declining since the late 1960s.
There’s some evidence to suggest that the easier GED route may even be causing some students to drop out. GED student Carlos tells me that the existence of the test played a central role in his decision to leave high school in 1998. “I saw some friends get their GED, and I thought: ‘Why should I wait around here? I’ll just get my GED.’” A few years later, he regrets his decision. “I should’ve stayed in school. It’s hard coming back after being out of the routine, and I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff.” Fellow GED-seeker Melinda also says that the GED was a big factor in her leaving school. Her family, struggling economically, was in danger of losing the family van. “I said, ‘No way: that’s our van,’” she recalls. “I told my mom that I was going to go to work so that we could keep it. She told me not to, but I said it was okay—I could always get my GED.” That was seven years ago. Melinda is struggling for the third time to start a GED prep course. She’s been unable to stick with previous classes, she says, because she has been too tired after long days at the copy shop where she works.
The existing data support these students’ stories. The Urban Institute’s Duncan Chaplin found that the easier a state makes it to get a GED—procedures differ from state to state—the higher the dropout rate. States with restrictions, such as making students wait longer after dropping out of school before they can obtain the credential, had lower rates.
The mere existence of the GED, in other words, appears to have altered susceptible students’ behavior. If the GED truly were the equivalent of a standard diploma, this unintended consequence wouldn’t be so worrisome. That it is not means that the GED may be hurting some of the very people it is intended to help.
The GED establishment is complicit in establishing the myth of equivalence. Joan Auchter, executive director of the GED Testing Service, claims that “the only thing [the test] can do is certify that people have an adequate understanding of a body of academic knowledge in the major content areas of high school”—though to suggest, as this statement does, that the GED exam in any way covers the standard high school curriculum is misleading in the extreme. But Auchter, in another mood, seems aware of the vast gulf between the GED and the high school diploma. She is blunt about how GED holders ought to count in education statistics: “They are dropouts,” she says. “That is what they are. They are dropouts that went on to get a certificate.”
If Auchter seems equivocal, the GED Testing Service website borders on the deceptive. It reports that “one out of every seven people who graduate each year earns that diploma by passing the GED tests”—completely obscuring the distinction between graduating high school and getting a GED. Even worse, it boasts that “more than 95 percent of employers in the U.S. consider GED graduates the same as traditional high school graduates in regard to hiring, salary, and opportunity for advancement”—a claim sharply at odds with everything that we know about GED holders in the workplace. The site proudly claims comedian Bill Cosby and Dave Thomas (founder of Wendy’s restaurant chain) as GEDs who’ve excelled.
A major force behind the desire to declare the GED equal to a normal high school degree is that everyone involved in the process, from the GED bureaucrats to the instructors to the students themselves, believes that obtaining the alternative degree boosts the self-esteem of recipients. It is perhaps the ultimate social promotion in an educational culture of social promotion. GED instructor Seewaldt holds up a copy of the diploma the students get when they pass. “See,” he says, pointing to the lettering. “It doesn’t say GED anywhere on it. It says HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA.” Though the prospect of getting a “real” diploma pleases students, one wonders whether the self-esteem produced wouldn’t be more lasting and meaningful if the degree demanded greater skills and correlated more strongly with completing college and boosting earnings.
How might we devise a system that offers students a second chance but that doesn’t obfuscate reality or entice students to drop out? For starters, we should make the GED harder. To discourage students from dropping out in the belief that they can just pick up a GED, we might also want to follow some states and require a national increase in the minimum age for taking the test, up from the current floor of 16, and lengthen the waiting period before a student leaving high school can take it. Above all, though, we need to be honest about what the GED is—a poor substitute for the real thing.