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What About the G.E.D.?

Long regarded as a life preserver for those who failed to earn a high school diploma, the General Educational Development exam is set to become harder and more expensive as it is aligned with the Common Core standards ("Raising the G.E.D. Bar Stirs Concern for Students," The New York Times, Oct. 12).  Whether the change warrants anxiety is largely a matter of how the G.E.D. is viewed.

If the objective is to increase the number of students possessing a high school diploma, then I would agree that the new exam is cause for alarm.  I say that because only about 70 percent of the 700,000 people taking the old exam each year passed, and the pass rate is tightly linked to where people live. The percentage will likely decline when the new tests are administered because they will have more items measuring advanced algebra and more items assessing higher-order critical thinking.  Compounding the pessimism (and confusion), the new G.E.D. will be scored using two different benchmarks: one that represents the pass rate equal to what 60 percent of current high school seniors could achieve and the second that measures readiness for college.

I have great respect for those who are trying to improve their lives through further education. Dropping out of high school ranks as one of the greatest mistakes young people make.  That's why I wish all of them well.  But I think we do them a disservice by leading them to believe that possession of a G.E.D. is the equivalent of a high school education.  It is not.  Nationwide, over a third of those who get their equivalency certificates enroll in college.  But they are not prepared for their classes.  I'm talking now about community college.  For example, in Massachusetts, 94 percent of those passing the test have to take at least one remedial math course. 

More important, I wonder if the number of people who drop out of high school in the first place and subsequently take the G.E.D. would be nearly as great if high schools began to give vocational education its proper due. Germany, Denmark and Switzerland have long regarded vocational programs as viable choices for students.  Perhaps more students in this country would graduate if we did the same.  Armed with a vocational diploma, students could then go on to community college, where 27 percent who earn a vocational certificate or license earn more than the average bachelor's degree holder.

If I'm right about my proposal, the G.E.D. would become an anachronism.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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