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Up to the Test?

The GED may not be worth as much as governments, the military and employers might suggest, but new research shows it may promote better health.

For high school dropouts, the General Educational Development tests may be the best shot at a second chance. A passing grade brings high school equivalency, opening doors to higher education and job opportunities. Unfortunately, 15 years of academic studies show that GED recipients’ wages are much closer to those of dropouts than to those of high school graduates.

A new paper by University of Minnesota, Twin Cities researcher Suh-Ruu Ou suggests that while passing the GED may not increase a person’s salary, it may help dropouts in other ways, especially their mental health.

The GED, a battery of five tests measuring skills in such subjects as math and reading, is one of the most successful standardized exams in America, with more than 714,000 test-takers in 2006, according to its developer, the American Council on Education. In 1960, just 2 percent of new high school credentials were awarded through equivalency exams; in 2001, one in five were awarded.

Originally developed to certify armed forces recruits who hadn’t completed high school, GED credentials are now functionally equivalent to diplomas. They’re accepted by the military, 98 percent of colleges and post-secondary institutions and 96 percent of employers. Government-run and privately funded social programs nationwide encourage dropouts to train for the test, and it’s particularly popular in prison, which one study estimated accounts for 10 percent of annual GED certifications.

But in many cases, researchers argue, the tests are worth little more than a piece of paper. In 1993, James Heckman and Stephen Cameron of the University of Chicago published the first major study questioning the value of the GED. High school dropouts who pass, they showed, make no more money than those who don’t take the test. And while the credential may qualify people for college, few with GEDs were actually going on to higher education.

Since then, several papers have refined these conclusions but confirmed their general findings. Dropouts who leave high school with low math skills, for example, may benefit from GED training and test-taking. Overall, though, the credential doesn’t have much effect.

“We find the degree itself does very little,” said Paul LaFontaine, a co-author with Heckman on several recent studies. “In terms of actual, observed outcomes, for people that stop their education at the GED, they don’t seem to be getting anything at all out of it.”

A major caveat to all GED research, of course, is that it’s hard to be entirely sure whether any outcome is caused by people passing the test or if it just correlates with GED recipients. In fact, some studies indicate that the GED itself suits a certain type of person: someone with high cognitive or intellectual skills but low non-cognitive skills, such as self-discipline and persistence. This may help explain why ACE’s studies show that GED recipients’ knowledge is near the level of the average high school graduate, while outside research found that they finish college less often than those at the bottom 20 percent of their graduating high school class.

The larger problem, GED critics believe, is that the rapid growth of GED credentials may be hiding deeper flaws within the U.S. educational system, such as what some data indicate is a decades-long nationwide decline in high school graduation. Every year, hundreds of thousands of high school “completers” are actually dropouts who’ve passed GED tests.

“It’s not good to pretend people have the skills of high school graduates because they can pass a grade school math test and read on a basic level,” said University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee researcher Lois Quinn. “In a way, it’s dishonest.”

For its part, ACE has revamped the tests several times to make them more difficult. But it has little incentive to dissuade test-takers — the $14 million in annual testing fees provide one-quarter of its annual income.

Ou, whose doctorate is in social welfare, decided to take a fresh look at what happens to people after they take the GED. She looked not just at salaries but also at such social outcomes as drug use and mental health.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable saying you can judge the benefits of the GED based only on money,” she said.

Ou analyzed data from the Chicago Longitudinal Study, which has tracked 1,539 children from predominantly African-American, low-income neighborhoods for more than 20 years. Her conclusions were slightly more optimistic than those of the economists whose research she’s following.

In many of the categories she examined, GED recipients fared better than other dropouts, though not as well as high school graduates. They were more likely to be earning at least $12,000 a year — the average income for young-adult African-Americans. Moreover, becoming the equivalent of high school graduates boosted their self-esteem: They reported greater life satisfaction and future optimism and lower levels of depression and substance use.

Like many researchers, Ou advocates programs that promote graduation and help prevent dropping out. Others believe the solution lies in deemphasizing the idea of the GED as a terminal degree, encouraging passers to go on to two-year colleges or dropouts to enter vocational training programs without sitting for the tests at all.

Yet for dropouts unlikely to go back to school, Ou still thinks the GED is worth something.

“We need to give GED recipients more credit. It’s hard for me to see that a GED recipient is no different than a dropout just because they’re not making that much money.”