Here's a pop quiz: what's the largest high school in America?
If you thought it was a metropolitan megacampus, or any campus at all, better guess again. By the sheer number of credentials granted, it's the American Council on Education, a Washington-based lobbying group that moonlights as the proprietor of the General Education Development, or GED, Testing Service. In 2004 alone, the Council granted over 400,000 GED certificates to people of all ages, most of them high school dropouts.
But 60 years after it was created as a way for returning veterans to get quick high school degrees and take advantage of the GI Bill, concerns are mounting that the GED may be hurting the education system more than helping it.
The GED is not a simple exam. It's a battery of five tests reading, writing, science, social studies and math that stretch out over 7.5 hours. It's taxing enough that Lyn Schaefer, the GED Testing Service's Director of Test Development, says that despite the test takers' 70% pass rate, six out of 10 enrolled high school seniors who do trial runs of the exam wouldn't be able to pass the real thing. Granted, the real test-takers have weeks or months of test prep for the GED that trial test-takers lack, but higher education has noted the rigor: 95% of community colleges and four-year colleges accept the certificate in place of a high school diploma.
But even if the GED is academically equivalent to a high school diploma, researchers say it functions too often as a siren call for restless teenagers, just attractive enough to lure them out of high school, but not so alluring that they actually end up taking it and go on to college. Once a test designed solely for adults, the GED is increasingly becoming a teenager's test. A growing number of states have dropped the minimum age for taking the test from 18 to 16, and 42% of all test-takers were teenagers in 2004, compared with 33% in 1991. Worse yet, many students drop out with the idea of taking the GED but don't end up taking it. "They drop out thinking, oh, this will be easy," says Duncan Chaplin, senior researcher with Princeton, NJ-based Mathematica Policy Research. But many dropouts quickly abandon their plans to take the test. "They just don't get around to it," says Chaplin.
In the cases where students do get the certificate, a rash of studies over the last decade have found that life outcomes for GED holders are similar to that of dropouts themselves. "The GED is not a substitute for a high school," says Mary Reimer of the National Dropout Prevention Center. "And most employers would tell you that too. They would pass up a GED holder for a high school graduate any day." The Department of Defense has come to the same conclusion. Their studies show that half of all alternative credential holders, typically GED holders or correspondence course graduates, quit or are expelled from the Armed Forces before the end of their first tour of duty. At an estimated $40,000 to replace each enlistee, recruiting a GED holder is an expensive gamble. So the military, the GED's original client, keeps a tight ceiling on the number of GED-holders allowed to serve, from 1% in the Air Force to 10% in the Army.
Still, Lynn Schaefer says that programs like Virginia's 2004 Race to the GED, which promotes the test at NASCAR events, have expanded educational opportunity and access to all Americans. Carmon Cunningham, vice president of the Jobs For the Future, a low-income and minority advocacy group, agrees that the sheer number of people taking the GED shows the great desire among the dropout population to find a path back to a better education and a better life. But a new report published by his organization questions the effectiveness of the GED as a launching pad for higher education. Almost 60% of all dropouts go back for some kind of high school degree, most often a GED, but less than ten percent of that group who enrolled in some sort of college end up actually earning a degree. Cunningham says that students who drop out of high school have a lot of deficits academic, social, motivational that a single exam won't cure. Schools and states, he says, need to stop pushing the GED as a quick fix and instead fund full re-entry programs that will help former dropouts who have the desire to go on to college get there and succeed. "What is really needed is a 'GED-Plus,'" he says. "A GED plus more work to get dropouts prepared to do something with it."
For all its perceived problems, the GED's popularity persists, and it's not clear that there are better alternatives on the horizon. The number of test takers took a dip after the test was redesigned in 2002, but has been rising ever since. But even the makers of the GED say that its success is in many ways a sad statement on the ability of schools to keep students. As the ACE's Schaefer puts it, "We always say how wonderful it would be, how delighted we'd be, if we could close the door on the GED because students are staying in school. "But that just isn't happening."