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National Review Online


Not-Quite High School

April 24, 2002

By Jay P. Greene

GED exams need toughening.

Many people think that the “E” in GED stands for “equivalent,” believing the alternative credential is supposed to be like a high-school diploma. They are wrong on two counts — the GED stands for General Education Development certification, and there is nothing about this certification that is equivalent to a high-school diploma.

We know that the GED is not equivalent to a regular high-school diploma because GED recipients tend to fare later in life much more like high-school dropouts than like graduates. A study by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and colleague Stephen Cameron 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.

The 60 percent of GED recipients who attempt higher education also do not make out very well. 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 four-year college, the prospects are even grimmer: An astonishing 95 percent of GED holders don’t finish, compared with 25 percent of high-school graduates.

GED recipients tend not to do much better than high-school dropouts primarily because it doesn’t take very much to obtain a GED. To get the certification, one has to pass tests in five subjects. Despite a recent revision of the tests, passage is not very difficult.

To pass any one of the five tests, students can perform at a level worse that 85 percent of a sample of high-school seniors that were given the same test. And GED seekers are allowed to retake each of the five tests as many times as they like until they eventually pass.

Of course, even this hurdle is difficult for some students, and it is laudable that dropouts attempt to restart their formal education by pursuing a GED. But no one should be fooled into thinking that preparing for the GED makes up for the material those students missed in high school.

The average GED recipient passes all five tests after just 30 hours of preparation time, yet that same student missed, on average, more than 850 hours of class time in core subjects by having left high school around the 10th grade. You simply can’t learn in 30 hours what you were supposed to have learned in 850 hours.

Unfortunately, there are real consequences to the false belief in GED equivalency. First, the easy availability of an “equivalent” degree may entice students to dropout of high school. Duncan Chaplin of the Urban Institute found that states that made it easier for students to take the GED, by having lower minimum-age requirements and shorter waiting periods between leaving high school and taking the GED tests, experienced higher dropout rates than states that made access to the GED more difficult.

Second, counting GEDs as if they were like regular high-school graduates has distorted public understanding of graduation rates in this country. When the U.S. Department of Education announced last year that 87 percent of students complete high school, they lumped together GED recipients with regular high-school graduates. And when it claimed that the high-school completion rate has been steadily increasing, the department failed to note that if the growing number of GED recipients were excluded, the real high-school graduation rate has actually been declining since the 1960s.

Americans do not need to do away with the GED to reduce the danger that it entices students to drop out and to prevent the growing number of GEDs from distorting education statistics. We simply have to be more honest about what the GED is — a test that dropouts can take to be given a second chance at formal education.

We also need to make passing the GED tests considerably more difficult. It is usually wise to make second chances more difficult than first chances or else we undermine people’s effort the first time.

Finally, we need to decrease easy access to the GED test by increasing minimum ages, increasing waiting periods and limiting how many times students can retake the exams.

It is important that something like the GED exist, and it is important that dropouts be encouraged to seek it. But we should concentrate first on trying to get all students to finish high school.

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