General Educational Development (GED) programs are the most widely recognized form of secondary-level adult education in the United States and Canada. GED programs give high school dropouts of all ages the opportunity to earn a General Equivalency Degree by passing the GED certification exam. The GED exam is produced and administered by the nonprofit American Council on Education's (ACE) GED Testing Service in partnership with for-profit publisher Pearson. The collaboration with Pearson allowed the development of a computerized version of the test, and in 2013, an online Spanish language version was released. Because the paper version of the test was eliminated at the end of 2013, and a number of states declined to administer the more expensive online test, other testing companies entered the market (Adams, 2013). New York, for example, explored alternatives to the ACE's GED (Thomson, 2013).Though most states do not require test-takers to undergo any formal preparation, many local community colleges, secondary schools, and other community centers offer preparation courses. Books and practice tests can also help students study on their own. Those who pass the test can benefit from improved employment and postsecondary educational opportunities, as well as greater self-confidence. Critics of the test claim that its availability increases the high school dropout rate, and that a GED certificate is not as valuable as a high school diploma.
Keywords American Council on Education (ACE); GED Certificate; General Equivalency Degree (GED); General Educational Development (GED); High School Diploma; High School Dropout; Human Capital; Vocational Training/Education
General Educational Development (GED) programs are the most widely recognized form of secondary-level adult education in the United States and Canada. GED programs give individuals of all ages who did not graduate high school the opportunity to earn a General Equivalency Degree, or GED certificate, by demonstrating sufficient cognitive skills and mastery of key high school curriculum subject areas. GED program participants demonstrate these skills not through classroom attendance and participation, but by passing the GED exam. Those who pass the GED test are no longer counted as dropouts, but are considered high school graduates in state, local, and federal educational statistics (Smith, 2003).
The GED exam is produced and administered by the American Council on Education's (ACE) GED Testing Service and Pearson, an education publisher. The 2002 version of the exam was really a battery of five standardized tests made up of nearly 300 multiple choice questions and one essay, and taking slightly less than 8 hours to complete. The 2014 test has four sections: Reasoning Through Language Arts, Science, Social Studies, and Mathematical Reasoning and is aligned with Common Core Standards. Even though the tests are geared towards specific areas of study, each portion of the exam is designed to test for the same "set of basic cognitive skills" (Boesl, Alsalam, & Smith, 1998, p. ix). Test takers must be able to recall some factual knowledge, but it is far more important that they exercise fundamental critical thinking skills. In the math section, for example, test takers do not need to memorize mathematical formulas, but they do need to know how to use the formulas (provided in the exam) to solve math problems (Boesl et al., 1998).
Besides creating the GED exam, ACE also sets its minimum passing requirements. In the early years of the GED, exams were fairly easy to pass. In the years between 1954 and 1960, for example, between 76% and 80% of test-takers passed the exam each year (Boesl et al., 1998, p. 8). This is because, in order to pass the test, test-takers simply had to beat the chance factor, or choose more correct answers than could be accounted for by chance (Smith, 2003). ACE's standards have become more stringent over the years, and currently test-takers must score at more than double the chance factor in order to pass the GED exam. Additionally, state assemblies are free to legislate passing requirements that exceed those set by ACE, and many states choose to do so (Smith, 2003).
Approximately once every decade, ACE designs an entirely new GED test. These overhauls change not only the content but also the actual form of the test in order to reflect general changes in high school curriculum. In 1988, for example, the essay section was added to what had theretofore been an entirely multiple choice exam (Smith, 2003). Over the years, the trend in these overhauls has been away from the recall of factual knowledge and towards the testing of overall critical thinking abilities (Smith, 2003). The latest GED exam was introduced in 2014, amending not only the content but also the mean of taking the test. Paper tests were eliminated in 2013, with fully online tests being implemented in January 2014.
The GED exam is administered locally, and is usually given at local secondary schools, community colleges, or other educational community centers. Each state sets its own policies as to who is eligible to take the GED exam. Many states require test takers to be 18 years of age or older, but offer special exemptions for test-takers as young as 16 years of age. Some states require test-takers to pass a practice test before they sit for the GED; others do not. States also decide what type of credential is given to those who pass the test. Most states issue either an equivalency certificate or an adult education diploma (Miller, 2006).
In most states, no type of formal preparation is required in order to take the GED exam (Smith, 2003). However, test-takers utilize a variety of preparation methods. Test preparation courses and adult education courses are offered at many local community colleges, secondary schools, and other community educational centers (Pluviose, 2006). If test-takers cannot attend such a course, or prefer to study on their own, books and practice tests are available. Many cable and publicly supported TV stations also offer programming geared towards GED test preparation (Smith, 2003). Finally, a significant number of GED test takers prepare for the test while incarcerated. The Department of Correctional Services offers evening classes, Adult Basic Education (ABE) literacy programs in both Spanish and English, and additional instruction for inmates at all primary and secondary educational levels. Most prisons run both pre-GED programs for inmates whose cognitive and reading abilities are below the 9th but above the 5th grade level, and GED programs for inmates with abilities above a 9th grade level (Nuttal, Hollmen, & Staley, 2003).
The Origins of the GED Program
The General Educational Development program was conceived during World War II as an alternative way to enable returning veterans to resume high school educations that had been interrupted by military service (Rachal & Bingham, 2004). The Roosevelt administration intended the GED exam to prevent the return of veterans into the civilian population from causing an economic depression. If veterans could quickly and easily earn GED certificates, then they could seek higher education with the help of the GI Bill instead of flooding the job market. The administration also hoped that the existence of the GED certificate would quell public opposition to the drafting of teenagers (Smith, 2003).
At this early stage, the GED certification exam was available only to veterans. Colleges and universities looked upon a General Equivalency Diploma favorably, as they were pre-disposed to admit veterans whose education would be funded by the GI Bill (Smith, 2003). Even as ACE began exploring the use of the GED among non-veterans, making it available to civilians in 1947, most states continued to prohibit civilians from taking part in GED programs (Miller, 2006; Smith, 2003). By 1959, however, most GED test-takers were non-veterans; and by 1974 all 50 states awarded all GED test-passers, regardless of military or civilian status, high school equivalency diplomas (Smith, 2003). Currently, the majority of GED test-takers are both civilians and relatively recent high school dropouts.
What are the Benefits to Earning a GED?
The U.S. Department of Education, working in concert with the National Library for Education, has identified several beneficial effects of participating in a GED program and earning a GED certificate:
Stimulus to Human Capital Investment
Human capital theory holds that individuals who invest in themselves through education increase their productivity in the workforce as well as the range of professional opportunities available to them (Georges, 2001). The time and money that GED program participants spend in preparing for and taking the GED exam represent a significant human capital investment, and a GED certificate should accordingly result in higher work wages and increased job and educational opportunities. Most researchers have found that while earning a GED can result in higher wages, the certificate is most valuable as a means of opening further educational opportunities (Brown, 2000). Some experts believe that test-takers would benefit more from the exam if they were rewarded for higher scores, and thus had an incentive to invest more time and money in preparing for it (Boesl et al., 1998).
The GED as Sorting Procedure
GED programs offers high school dropouts the opportunity to differentiate themselves from other dropouts. By...
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