America’s Largest High School

Dallas Jones is showing off some of his artwork at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C. All his designs have nautical themes: blue backgrounds with sailboats, anchors and fish.

Dallas Jones, 90, was one of the first wave of people to earn a GED credential when it began in 1942. (Photo by Jared Angle)

Dallas Jones stands outside the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, DC. “I’m proud to have served my country,” he said on March 2, 2013. (Photo by Jared Angle)

Dallas Jones looks at photos of his wedding day. He was married for 60 years and said he has lived a “blessed” life. (Photo by Jared Angle)

Dallas Jones says he gave his two children two pieces of advice to get along in the world “learn to type and learn to dance.” (Photo by Jared Angle)

Dallas Jones says he gave his two children two pieces of advice to get along in the world “learn to type and learn to dance.” (Photo by Jared Angle)

Dallas Jones on why he incorporates a nautical theme in his artwork. “I spent 20 years in the Navy, enough said,” he said on March 2, 2013. (Photo by Jared Angle)

“I spent 20 years in the Navy, enough said.”

Jones, 90, dropped out of school in 1938. He was 15 and had to help support his family. “My parents were tenant farmers, so we were down the bottom rung of the ladder during the Depression,” he says.

Two years later, he joined the Navy and was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. After a few years of service, Jones decided to take the GED, or General Educational Development test, and passed.

“It’s important, especially if you’re down at the bottom, you’ve got to have an education,” he says. “The GED filled the gap.”

The GED test was started in 1942 for military veterans whose education was interrupted by World War II. It allowed thousands of service members, including Jones, to get a credential they could use to go on to college.

In 2012, the GED test accounted for approximately 12 percent of all high school credentials given out in the U.S. It’s recognized all over the country and tests reading, math, writing, science, and social studies.

“It was an accomplishment,” Jones says. “I was glad to get a GED which is an equivalent.”

High school diploma vs. GED test

Many researchers argue that the GED test is not equivalent to a high school diploma. Janice Laurence, a professor at Temple University, says it’s not even close.

In the 1980s, the Pentagon asked Laurence to research whether there were different outcomes for military recruits during their active duty years depending on whether they had a high school diploma or a GED certificate.

“Traditional high school diploma graduates are much more likely to complete their enlistment term. For example, only 24 percent of them leave before completing a three-year term of enlistment. The corresponding rate for GEDs is about 45 percent. So it’s almost half of them don’t complete their term of enlistment. That’s the stubborn, stubborn trend.”

Each new recruit who drops out of the military early means tens of thousands of dollars in wasted training. Now GED certificate holders are considered “second tier candidates.” Laurence says they’re admitted by the military “sparingly.”

It isn’t just the military that has documented differences in outcomes between people with high school diplomas and those with GED certificates. Nobel Laureate James Heckman at the University of Chicago in Illinois calls it “an incomplete, misleading measure.”

“We’re producing GEDs,” says Heckman. “It’s like a factory where nobody asks what the final output is.”

Heckman is writing a book on the GED test. He and co-author Tim Kautz have been looking at “final outputs.”

“We study GED recipients through age 40, and we find they have lower earnings, lower employment rates, higher divorce rates, and lower levels of health.”

—Tim Kautz

“We study GED recipients through age 40, and we find they have lower earnings, they have lower employment rates, higher divorce rates, and also lower levels of health,” Kautz says.

He and Heckman say the GED test is “deceptive” because it conceals problems. For example, Kautz argues that including GED certificates in the national graduation rate hides racial inequalities.

“If you count GED recipients as high school graduates, the black-white gap in high school graduation rates has closed substantially,” he says. “If you don’t, there’s been no progress in the last 40 years.”

The GED test is also often billed as a gateway to higher education. But Kautz says that’s not so.

“We find that about 40 percent of GED recipients tried some form of post-secondary education, but about half of them drop out within the first year, and within six years, only 1 percent earn a bachelor’s degree,” he says.

Some critics say the GED certificate misses qualities known as “soft skills.” High school is not just about academics. Students learn how to be persistent and disciplined as well as how to work in a team, follow rules and show up on time.

Researchers believe when the GED test was introduced in the 1940s, it was very helpful for veterans. Laurence says the reason is because they took the test after they had served in the military, when they had already matured and gained some experience in life and teamwork.

The problem, she says, is that when the test was applied to a different population, it was no longer as useful.

Value of the GED test

CT Turner with the GED Testing Service defends the exam.

“A lot of economists look at this and they punch some holes, and say, maybe someone who earns GED credential doesn’t earn much more than someone who drops out, but this is not important,” he says.

Turner says what is important is that the GED test is a “critical pathway” and without it, the approximately 30 million adults who don’t have a high school credential, couldn’t even apply for most jobs or go on to higher education.

In a sense, he is right. Thanks to these government incentives, the GED test has become a ticket to some federal jobs programs, college grants and even for prisoners, a chance to get out of jail a little sooner. It has given many undocumented immigrants a better shot at staying in the U.S.

But James Heckman says the GED test is a “false promise,” and should be evaluated not on whether it opens doors, but on how many people go through them.

“It’s better than maybe nothing, but we’re kidding ourselves, and we’re also kidding them that the GED is going to help them much,” he says.

And Heckman says if we don’t do something about this, right when our nation needs more skilled workers, we’re going to have more unskilled ones.

New GED test becomes more difficult

The GED test is set to undergo some significant changes in 2014, becoming more difficult and more expensive. Also, students will have to take the test on a computer.

Darnetta Hollis earned a GED credential in 2013 at Academy of Hope in Washington D.C. In 2011, approximately 430,000 people in the U.S. received a GED certificate. (Photo by Kelly Ramundo)

At Academy of Hope, an adult education center in Washington, D.C., 36 smiling students in blue caps and gowns are graduating. For them, the GED certificate is much more than just a piece of paper. It’s a feeling of self-worth and accomplishment, and symbolizes hope for the future.

Approximately 430,000 people passed the GED test in the U.S. in 2012. But in 2014 after it underwent what some adult educators call a “radical overhaul,” that number dropped.

“The test is going to be better because we’re raising the requirements for individuals,” says Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), which oversees the test. She prefers the term “dramatic transformation.”

The new GED test is far more difficult — more emphasis on critical thinking, more questions on science, and more writing. Students also need to have background knowledge. In addition, the scoring has changed to identify whether the students that pass are just “high school equivalent” or are at a new higher standard of “college and career ready.”

Lecester Johnson, who runs Academy of Hope, says the new test is a source of “constant worry.”

It takes almost two years for her students to prepare to take the current GED test. With the increased difficulty, she expects they will have to tack on another year of learning, making it more likely they won’t complete their studies. She also has to move from a volunteer base of tutors to hiring eight professional teachers, which will double her nonprofit’s costs to $2 million.

“With the new GED, the critical thinking skills, the depth of knowledge required, we’ll need subject area experts in the classroom,” says Johnson. “For us, that’s a huge financial burden.”

New GED test requires computer skills

Along with the GED becoming more difficult, students are no longer able to take a pencil and paper test — it’s computerized.

Molly Broad says these “minimal computer skills” are required for most jobs. She also says there are other advantages, such as being able to register anytime online, better test security and an instant report on how you’ve done in different subject areas.

“You’ll get your score right away whereas now you have to wait weeks, and sometimes months to even know whether you even passed,” she says.

But those advantages don’t calm the worries of many adult educators and their students. Gloria Sword from Palm Coast, Fla. says her students don’t have even basic keyboarding skills.

“My students are reacting very fearful, very stressful, very confused,” she says. “I have many students who do not have a computer, many students who do not even know how to operate a computer. They don’t even know what a mouse is.”

Even when programs offer computer classes they often don’t have enough of them.

“We have about 1,000 students at the school where I teach and we only have one computer lab so at any given time we can put only about 5 percent of our students on the computer,” says Steven DeMaio who teaches in the suburbs of Boston.

Adult educators say they are not against raising standards but that there has been no support or resources to help them with implementation. By contrast, as the K through 12 system increased standards, states were able to access a portion of the tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to help prepare for the change.

New GED test is more expensive
Claudine Edwards has taken the GED test twice before and failed. If she doesn’t pass before the end of the year she will have to take the new computerized exam. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

The third major change to the GED test is that it costs a lot more to take. In some places including D.C., the price has more than doubled from $50 to $120. For many adult learners, the increase is prohibitive.

Take Claudine Edwards, for instance. She dropped out of school at 13 when she had a baby. And when she did, her dreams of becoming a nurse evaporated. Now she’s 53 and enrolled in classes at Academy of Hope.

This is the third time she’s enrolled in adult education classes. She stopped coming the first time because of an abusive relationship; the second time was after she took the GED test — and failed.

“I went to school everyday,” she says. “To this day, I feel like I could cry. I really, really studied.”
Edwards is like many adult learners who are very fragile, with little confidence. They are already so discouraged that any setback can be devastating. It’s taken Edwards three years to summon up the courage to try again.

“I think about all these years where I could have probably been. A lot of my goals could’ve been accomplished. But I’m not giving up.”

She lost her job as a cleaner during the recession, and for five years she’s been unemployed. Edwards relies on food stamps, and her daughter pays her rent.

Catherine Walsh is teaching a math class at Academy of Hope. “Some of my students don’t know the difference between the multiplication sign and the addition sign,” she said. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

When Cathy Walsh, a staff member at Academy of Hope, brings up money, Edwards tenses up. When she hears fees costs $10 for three months, Edwards looks relieved. But then a moment later, she inquires about volunteer work.

Walsh explains the school’s “service hours” payment system, in which Edwards can volunteer after class to put away chairs and clean the whiteboard. That way she’ll only have to pay a third of the fee — $10 for three months of classes. But Edwards can’t afford even that. She stares at the papers.

“Can you give me a copy of this, so I can show it to a loved one ‘cause I’m not working.” she asks Walsh.

Rosemary Lishcka, director of adult education at Kansas City Kansas Community College, says this story is familiar. In her state this year, the practice test costs $50 and the GED test costs $85. She says a lot of her students are able to pass the practice test, but aren’t able to come up with the $85.

She says increasing the price of the test to $120 will put it even further out of reach for many students.

“It’s a utility bill, it’s groceries, it’s gas,” she says. “Many of our students buy enough gas to get where they’re going on any given day and then they buy it again as soon as they have to go somewhere else.”

But CT Turner with the GED Testing Service calls the $120 “rock bottom pricing.” He says right now, states just lease the exam and are responsible for all the “extras.”

“They have to find someone to score the test, proctor the test, issue the transcript credential, all those things cost something,” says Turner.

Those “extras” are included in the price of the new test, he says, that’s why it’s more expensive.

But those explanations are of little comfort to Valarie Ashley, who runs Southeast Ministries, which operates an adult learning program in Washington, D.C. She wonders if she’ll be able to keep her doors open.

“It absolutely frightens me,” says Ashley. “Will I even be able to maintain a program? I’m not trying to be like Chicken Little, but there are so many things that are unknown, unanswered, but they all have a dollar sign attached.”

Many adult educators say the GED test is changing so fast with so little information because the students who are affected are already so vulnerable and beaten down, they’re not likely to advocate for themselves. Would this be happening, they ask, if we were talking about the SATs?

Alternatives to the GED test

Forty states are now looking at alternatives to the GED test, such as exams that are cheaper and allow students to choose between the computer and pencil and paper options. Some states, including New York, Montana and New Hampshire, have already announced they will scrap the GED test as the high school equivalency exam and work with other companies.

But economist James Heckman says debating how much a test costs or whether it’s computerized misses the point.

“The way modern life has come to rely on the achievement test is really delusional, and in this instance harmfully delusional,” he says. “We want to be able to put people into a test room situation and come up with a strong predictor for what final life outcomes will be, and we know the GED doesn’t do that, these other exams are of the same sort, I would be amazed if they were any better.”