Good Enough Diploma

Kay Mills
September 5, 2010

The General Educational Development test – commonly known as the GED – is getting new attention from education reformers who have found that passing the test, like earning a high school diploma, doesn’t necessarily represent college readiness.

The American Council on Education, which oversees the GED and consists of colleges, universities and other higher education-related organizations, is retooling the exam to reflect new national curriculum standards that aim to give graduates better preparation for careers or college.

The forthcoming test changes are set against a backdrop of efforts by ACE and other organizations, such as Jobs for the Future and its affiliated programs, to increase the chances for low-income high school dropouts to achieve success in post-secondary education. A 2009 ACE study showed that 42.9 percent of those who passed the GED in 2003 enrolled in post-secondary education, usually at a college with programs lasting two years or less. Nursing was the most popular major. However, only 11.8 percent of those who passed the GED in 2003 had completed their post-secondary program six years later.

President Barack Obama has set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. “We can’t get there from here without these adult learners,” says ACE Vice President Nicole Chestang, who is also executive director of the GED Testing Service. To reach that goal, ACE estimates that the United States must produce an additional million college graduates each year above today’s numbers until 2020.

In the past, Chestang says, getting a high school diploma or a GED was often all a person needed for a job that would support a family. Now people must have some form of post-secondary education. “Just passing the GED exam is not enough. We want to make it a transition, not a destination.”

Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that education past the high school level makes a significant difference in earnings. American workers averaged $774 a week in earnings last year: Those with less than a high school diploma earned an average of  $454 weekly; high school graduates, $626; people with associate’s degrees, $761; and those with bachelor’s degrees, $1,025 weekly. Jobs for poorly educated people are also being eliminated; unemployment in 2009 was 14.6 percent for those with less than a high school diploma, versus 9.7 percent for high school graduates and 5.2 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees.

Workers’ lack of education doesn’t affect just them, but also the economic well-being of the areas where they live. The Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty research and advocacy group, reports that, on average, “those who do not complete high school cost the city treasury nearly $135,000 more [each, over their lifetimes] than they pay in taxes for expenses such as incarceration or shelter. Even those who only complete high school, by contrast, pay an average of over $190,000 more into city coffers than is expended on their behalf.”

Thus, the society’s study continued, “simply helping one low-skilled New Yorker earn a high school degree or GED is worth more than $325,000 to the city.”

A little history

The GED test was established during World War II to help veterans who hadn’t finished high school obtain their diplomas. In the late 1940s, New York State decided its civilians – high school dropouts, immigrants and others – could benefit, too. Now all states have adopted it, and most colleges and employers accept a GED certificate as the equivalent of a high school diploma. Well-known people who have received GED credentials include Mary Lou Retton, the Olympics gymnastics gold medal winner; comedian and actor Bill Cosby; country music star Gretchen Wilson; and F. Story Musgrave, a NASA shuttle astronaut. Since the test’s inception, 17 million people have passed it. But there are still 39 million adult Americans without high school diplomas – 18 percent of the population.

The GED test determines whether adults have high school-level skills in five areas: reading, writing, math, science and social studies. The test takes about eight hours to complete and can be taken all at once or in several segments. It is largely multiple choice, although the writing test includes an essay.

The test is paper-based and conducted at 3,000 centers around the country. Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, tests 5,000 to 6,000 people each year, both students within the district’s adult schools and from the general public. In 2008, California had the highest testing volume, with 59,000 candidates, followed by New York, with 57,000. Nationally, 493,490 people passed the test that year, less than two-thirds of those who took it. 

ACE develops the test, but state education authorities administer it, so the cost varies. Maine, for example, charges nothing, while rates in Michigan run from $30 to $380. People who fail a section of the test can retake it, but again, retesting policies differ from state to state. ACE advises that people check costs and requirements in their own states at

This summer, ACE has been piloting computer-based tests in 11 states and plans to start more widespread use of them next year, Chestang says. That format will provide more access for people who want to take the test, because now “there are huge waits” for a testing appointment. While 800,000 people take the test every year, she says, “there are 15 million who need it.”

Since 1942, there have been four different series of tests; the latest was put in place in 2002. ACE had planned to introduce a fifth edition on Jan.1, 2012, but now is developing the next test in alignment with the new national standards for education from kindergarten through high school. It hopes to have a test blueprint by next year. The GED Testing Service acknowledges that developing this new test will also “require investment in academic preparation programs and post-transition programs,” so it has pledged not to launch the new test until support systems are improved.

The existing test uses 1999 high school graduation standards, and ACE wants a more rigorous GED credential that signifies career and college readiness. This desire coincides with efforts led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop standards covering what students should learn in English, language arts and math. For example, in reading, the standards establish a “staircase” of increasing complexity about what students must be able to read and comprehend so that they are ready for the demands of college- and career-level work. 

Backers of the standards believe they will help ensure that students across the country are receiving high-quality educations. The standards don’t specify how teachers are to teach, but set out what students should know at each grade level. By press time, 32 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the standards. 

If students don’t graduate from high school, “the optional route should be no less rigorous,” says Dane Linn, director of NGA’s education division. “Otherwise, we are doing an injustice to the individual,” in terms of his or her ability to succeed in college or the workplace. The current GED is “still woefully inadequate” in terms of providing that rigorous alternative, he says. 

To some people, the GED has the stigma of being a “Good Enough Diploma” for people who couldn’t handle high school academics, the Community Service Society report said. But despite the misconceptions, the society said, the programs that prepare people for the GED offer a way they can raise their skills to pass the test and move on with their educations and their careers.

A generation of support

Parents who return to the classroom to work toward a GED also can have a positive effect on their children, a premise underlying a year-old effort of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Its Parent Engagement GED Preparation Program began in spring 2009 because, school officials recognized, parents of students at high schools with high graduation rates had high graduation rates themselves, and parents of students at low-ranking high schools were less likely to have high school diplomas.

LAUSD has been recruiting parents to enroll in either English as a Second Language classes, if they need them, adult basic education or GED preparatory classes. Many of these parents are either new to the United States or high school dropouts. When they arrived in this country, they learned basic English but now may be out of work and need better language skills for the available jobs. “The requirements and the competition are so great now that they know that any advantage they have will help,” says Danna Escalante, who works with the program.

So far there are about 1,400 parents in the program, Escalante says. About 40 took the GED last year, and 36 passed. Others still need better basic math and reading proficiency.

In addition, LAUSD’s Division of Adult and Career Education has just launched a three-year pilot program linking its North Valley Occupational Center with Mission Community College. The IMPACT – or Improving Adult College Transition – program is concentrating on developing reading, writing and math skills, as well as what Tom Calderon, an adviser in LAUSD’s Office of Curriculum Development, called “college knowledge.” Many of the students in the programs haven’t known anyone who has been to college, he says, so they don’t know that no one is going to call them if they miss class or don’t turn in their homework. LAUSD hopes that if the program is successful, it can be replicated elsewhere in the district.

With the current test, even students who obtain their GED certificates often aren’t truly ready for college, either at a community college or a four-year institution.

 John Garvey, who in 2003 led the effort to start a college preparatory program at City University of New York, cautions that students who pass the GED frequently must take remedial math or English courses when they enroll in college.  Often they don’t succeed in those courses and as a result are “less likely to persist and less likely to earn a degree.” As Garvey, now an education consultant, wrote in a report for the Youth Development Institute last year, “this means that … instead of finding themselves on the road to college success, they find themselves on the road to likely failure and profound discouragement.”

Garvey believes that the community-based organizations that work with students striving to be accepted to and complete community colleges too often set their goals at a minimum – such as simply passing the GED – as “determined largely by the expectations of funders and the need to achieve results that are required for continued funding.”

In addition, he says, programs often have insufficient staff, including too many part-timers, as well as limited professional development opportunities. Although the people who work in these areas “are characterized by extraordinary dedication and hard work (and by being badly paid), instruction is rarely as good as it needs to be,” Garvey says.

“As a result, test scores increasingly reflect not what students know but what they have practiced to get right,” Garvey says. He recommends that instruction for the GED “move away from exam preparation” and toward more substantial knowledge development, “with the expectation that improved exam performance will follow.”

A bridge is the gateway

Foundations are focusing some of their grants on efforts to do just that. These attempts are necessary because the 2009 ACE report, “Crossing the Bridge,” found that nearly one-third of the 2003 GED recipients the researchers studied dropped out of postsecondary education programs after a single semester. That “raises questions of why they left, what supports might have made a difference, and what triggers would bring them back, perhaps at a later point in life,” the report stated.

The Gates Foundation, for example, has provided a $6 million grant to support efforts by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based organization that identifies, develops and promotes education strategies, to help low-income youths get into and through postsecondary education. Jobs for the Future is working with two national networks, YouthBuild USA and the National Youth Employment Coalition, on a “GED to College” program.

For example, YouthBuild has identified seven organizations that work with 16- to 24-year-olds who dropped out of high school, and it is helping those groups develop courses that enable young people not only to pass the GED but also to feel comfortable when they move on to a community college. These programs are located in Atlanta; Bloomington, Ill.; Brockton, Mass.; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; Philadelphia; and Madison, Wis. The organizations are also seeking closer partnerships with the community colleges in their areas, says Scott Emerick, YouthBuild’s director of higher education achievement.

The organizations are encouraging the colleges to adopt many of the same collaborative group learning methods and emphasis on teaching critical thinking they use so students “aren’t facing there the same kind of atmosphere they had at the comprehensive high school they dropped out of,” Emerick says. With an instructor directing discussions among students, for example, people learn from each other. “They are forced to communicate clearly,” Emerick says, and the instructor has a better idea who is learning the material. “In the traditional classroom, it’s relatively easy for a student to hide,” Emerick adds; this way he can’t.

As for critical thinking skills, Emerick says these involve having students actively analyzing and synthesizing information.  For instance, they might look at environmental data and make inferences and conclusions about real-life problems they experience in their own communities, he says, adding that students need these skills to succeed on the job or in college.

Once a student gets the GED, the programs make sure the student finds the financial aid he or she may need, as well as counseling and opportunities to participate in activities that help build positive relationships with other students and develop leadership skills.

One challenge the organizations face is the amount of time they have to work with the young people, Emerick says. “In a nine-month program, it is really tough to get to the level of college skills students will need” and that many lack. He says the programs involved have found that a summer bridge program between the time the students receive their GEDs and start community college is very important to keep them involved. Portland (Ore.) YouthBuilders and its partner, Portland Community College, and YouthBuild Brockton (Mass.) along with Massasoit Community College have bridge programs to help students improve their math and reading skills, as well as develop good study habits.

Lashon Amado is one of Brockton YouthBuild’s success stories. Expelled from two public high schools for a range of discipline issues, Amado, who will be 21 in October, heard about YouthBuild from his cousin. He joined the program in October 2008 and passed the GED several months later. “I’d never thought about going to college,” says Amado, who was leaning instead toward technical school to learn automotive repair. “No, you need a degree,” the YouthBuild staff told him. “They push you,” he says. “You would not get this support in high school.”

He participated in the summer bridge program last year and now has completed his first year at Massasoit, majoring in criminal justice. He says he’s gone all out, has a 3.85 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, and was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year college students. He hopes to attend Bridgewater (Mass.) State University after graduation in the spring.

An amazing field

Another bridge program – College Connection at the Community College of Denver – is an eight-week intensive summer program that enrolls both high school graduates and GED recipients who need to improve their math and reading skills before entering college. Its director, Elaine Baker, says the program also emphasizes career and labor market information to connect students with an education plan. “That’s as important as academic preparation, because they have set a goal and know the steps, the courses, they need to get there. They study labor market statistics and what job openings there are.” Each student writes a paper about what he or she has learned and does a PowerPoint presentation for classmates.

College Connection has found that 87 percent of its summer students enroll in college courses and the retention rate from semester to semester was 100 percent the first two years, and 85 percent the third. The program receives support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation through Jobs for the Future and the National Council for Workforce Education.

Steve Patrick, a Gates Foundation senior program officer, says he is excited to see the models that are emerging to put young people on pathways out of poverty.  They are showing that with the right support, young people can not only get their GEDs, but thrive in college or career training, he says.

“The youth development field is a field that does amazing work. It literally saves young people’s lives.”

Contacts: American Council on Education,

This article was originally published in Youth Today, an independent, nationally distributed newspaper for professionals in the youth service field. It is reprinted here with permission. For more great articles or to subscribe to the print edition, visit