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Making the Case for a Good-Enough Diploma

Common Core and big business have combined to make the lot of the upwardly mobile high school dropout even more dire.
(Illustration: Craig Peterson)

(Illustration: Craig Peterson)

Jennifer Neustedt is a caregiver—her job includes changing bedding, helping patients with eating, and monitoring their medicines—in an elder-housing facility in Bellingham, Washington. The 32-year-old, married with four children, works 40 hours a week for about $11 an hour.

Jose Rosado is a full-time metal fabricator in Cleveland, Ohio, putting together drop boxes that FedEx uses for package pick-ups. Twenty-seven, married and with a three-year-old son, he makes about $15 an hour. His wife doesn’t work—she’s been ill for a few years—and health-care costs have added to the family expenses.

Both are high school dropouts. Neustedt left school when she became pregnant at age 15, while Rosado dropped out in ninth grade because “I was into all sorts of things, and school wasn’t one of them.” Both need a high school diploma, or its equivalent, to move into the educational programs that will help them climb up the economic ladder.

If Neustedt were to put in two years of community college in a nursing program, she could triple her pay and move up in the booming health-care industry. Rosado wants to go to a vocational-tech training school to get certified in welding, which would open up his job options and perhaps triple his pay. It might even jumpstart his dream of owning an auto mechanic business.

Neustedt and Rosado both take tutoring classes to prepare for the GED, a high-school equivalency test. GED stands for General Educational Development (or, in less charitable quarters, the Good-Enough Diploma), and the test measures basic math, reading, writing, and history. Both Neustedt and Rosado put in 15 to 20 hours a week studying for the test, and they have been at it for more than a year.

These two are, by all estimations, reasonably intelligent adults, in stable family relationships, who work full-time and are working hard to get ahead—the kind of people the bootstrap puller-upper political crowd extols as examples of American hard work and determination. And yet neither Neustedt nor Rosado has passed the four-part GED. In fact, neither has passed even one of the parts.

They’re not alone. Fewer people passed the GED in 2014 than had in any other year since 1968, when the United States had 100 million fewer citizens. Why can’t they earn a good-enough diploma?


(Illustration: Pacific Standard)

(Illustration: Pacific Standard)

A retooled GED rolled out in January 2014, and the new test is harder than the old one. A lot harder. That’s intentional: The people behind the test insist that a harder test is good for worker productivity and gives the GED more value—arguments that echo those made for the Common Core State Standards Initiative and its mission to improve American classroom education through consistent curricula and ample standardized testing.

Common Core, in fact, is a big reason the current GED is so much harder. States—and keep in mind that states decide when and how to adopt Common Core, not the federal government—required the new test to adhere to Common Core standards. Rather than assessing skills learned by rote, including basic math, reading, and writing skills, Common Core means to emphasize analytical learning—“how” and “why” and not just “what.” And the new GED reflects that intention.

The content change in the new test—more math, algebra-level and above (the old test was one-fourth advanced math; the new test is one-half ), essays graded on analysis and not grammar, tough chemistry equations—is the biggest factor in the historic drop-off, according to those who tutor prospective test-takers.

And while those who oversaw this test change insist that the numbers will go up as tutors and test-takers get to know the new GED, right now the new test is failing a large number of people who need a second chance to get ahead. This remains a significant population to draw from: According to the Department of Education, while dropout rates among all demographic groups have been falling for years, some seven percent of current 16- to 24-year-olds are high school dropouts.

The GED has always measured basic academic proficiency, but it also served as a proxy for the test-taker’s determination to study and ultimately move up economically. The new test has lessened the importance of that resolve, and seems to be discouraging people from even trying.

The focus of the new test also questions a tacit, if real, goal for many taking the GED: It’s a tool for moving up a few rungs on the vocational ladder, not a launching pad for those who want to jump onto the university escalator.

University of Chicago researchers found that, in the past few decades, the GED has consistently accounted for about 12 percent of the high school diplomas awarded in the U.S. But fewer than five percent of those passing the GED go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to 27 percent of regular high school graduates. About 40 percent of GED test-passers, according to a 2011 study conducted for the GED Testing Service, do attend some post-secondary education classes—college, vocational school, or certification programs—but only about half spend more than a year in those efforts.

“Infusing Common Core into the GED is a huge error,” Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, a former assistant secretary of education, and a well-respected researcher on educational issues, wrote recently on her own blog. “It has made the GED so rigorous that vast numbers of young people will never pass it.”

Ravitch is a well-known opponent of Common Core, but the 2014 changes in the GED led many in the education community to ask lots of meta-questions about learning, the economy, and even who is pulling the levers in educational reform. What is a high school diploma anyway, and what’s it worth? Do all high-tech skills revolve around a mouse and a keyboard? Should we be concerned that for-profit entities drive education policy?

One big question echoes bored high schoolers’ eternal plaint: How am I ever going to use this?

In the case of many contemplating the GED, the answer is apparent: I’m not. If I sweep floors for a living, and I want to move up to become the manager of the floor sweepers, and my employer requires a high school diploma for that position, knowing trigonometry and chemistry equations and writing analytical essays on religious-freedom court decisions aren’t useful. Yes, there are moving descriptions of the importance of a full and liberal education in the creation of an enlightened citizenry, but as a practical matter my lot has been cast and this ambitious GED is an obstacle—not an aid—to my advancement.

“Do they really need to master algebra to work as a laborer in the construction trade or a shelf stocker at Walmart?” Ravitch asks. “Do they really need to demonstrate close reading skills to get an entry-level job to support themselves and their families? Why erect a barrier so high that large numbers of people will be trapped in poverty, unemployment, and unskilled low-wage jobs?”

Neustedt, for example, points out that there is a shortage of nurses, and that her inability to help fill that void reflects less about her skills than the fact that she had a child at age 15.

“None of this makes sense to me right now,” she says. “I think it is common knowledge that most people can become better workers if you can give them hands-on learning experience or an educational job-training program. A high school equivalency diploma would give me that opportunity, and I know I could handle moving up in nursing. I have studied this for more than a year, and I am being denied that opportunity because I’m having a hard time with polynomial equations. And how is that going to make me a better nurse and earn more money for my family?”

Rosado has the same frustration: “I’ve gone as far in my job as I can go. And I want to make my dad proud of me, and be a good example for my son. So I’ve been studying for a year, and I’m no closer than when I started. I already know how to weld, but most jobs want you certified, and I can’t get certified without the GED.”

“And I know of people who passed the old test after studying for about six months,” Rosado adds. “It’s almost like I am doing everything I can to better myself, and they changed the rules so I can’t do that.”

“There is a middle ground of qualified people that could use their GED for those middle-skill jobs that are being cut out merely because they perhaps aren’t very good at algebra,” says Dan McLaughlin, who has spent five years in adult education and directs the GED tutoring program for the Seeds of Literacy non-profit in Cleveland. The program, which has about 200 volunteers helping with the GED tutoring program, had about 104 of its students pass in 2013, just two in 2014, and just five so far this year.


(Illustration: Pacific Standard)

(Illustration: Pacific Standard)

Is there a market for two GEDs then, one that measures basic skills certain employers might like, a genuine “good-enough diploma,” and another for those aiming for college?

The GED was first offered in 1943 and was intended to give returning World War II soldiers—many drafted out of high school at the age of 18—a way to get their diploma without having to go back to high school after surviving the Battle of the Bulge or storming beaches in the Pacific. The test gave credit for life skills, and made sure just about everyone plucked out of high school to fight could earn a diploma. In essence, the test was meant to be a breeze, and focused mostly on “weed[ing] out people who were functionally illiterate,” University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee researcher Lois Quinn told Marketplace last year.

Over time, that low bar was raised. The GED turned into a second chance for dropouts, not draftees, who now wanted to improve their lot in life. The test was run by the American Council on Education, or ACE, an association of college administrators. ACE updated the GED roughly once a decade to keep up with what was taught in high school classrooms. And yes, pass rates fell in years with the updated tests.

The National Council of State Directors of Adult Education calls the recent drop in passing—540,000 passing the GED in 2013 to 196,000 in 2014—“decennial scurry.” There is an expected bump in the numbers taking the test the year before the change takes place. The test last changed in 2002, the group points out, and the number taking and passing the test in 2001 was artificially high; after a dip in 2002 the number rebounded in 2003. The same will happen this time around, the group predicts in a press release: normal numbers in 2012, extremely high numbers in 2013, a fall in the change year of 2014, and back to normal in 2015.

But compare the numbers in 2002 and 2014, when the test changed.

In 2002, the number of those passing the GED, 329,000, was 66 percent of the 2000 number of 497,000. In 2003, passings were 78 percent of the 2000 number. The 2014 number of 196,000, in comparison, was just 49 percent of 2012’s 401,000. Increases are being seen this year over 2014, but they are minimal. And they are still quite low compared to 2012 numbers: In 2015 (based on the numbers prorated for the year as of August), Ohio will likely be awarding 24 percent of the number of diplomas it issued in 2012; Illinois, 31 percent; and Florida, 42 percent—all fractions of that 78 percent figure from 2003.

(Randy Trask, president and CEO of the GED Testing Service, unpacked that 196,000 figure from 2014, explaining that it includes three distinct tests, with 86,000 coming just from passing the GED. Those 86,000 came from 140,000 that year who took the whole battery—all four parts—of the test, while some 230,000 people took at least one GED test part.)

Meanwhile, other changes in the GED process and the rise of competing equivalency tests further muddy the picture. ACE started revamping the GED in 2009, the same time that individual states started discussions about high school graduation standards that included the Common Core. Those standards naturally became part of the revamping process. Meanwhile, ACE decided it wanted out of administering the test and so, in 2011, teamed with for-profit publisher Pearson. The United Kingdom–based company, with its tagline “Always Learning,” increased the price of the test from as low as $35 to as high as $150 (prices vary by state, and a few states subsidize the cost), made it computer-only instead of pen-and-paper (the drag-and-clicks would demonstrate proficiency in the use of a computer mouse), charged $6 for each practice test in the four parts, and required that test-takers have a credit card to pay for the test and an email address to receive results.

These were unwelcome changes for the GED’s primary audience. Census figures show half of those without a high school diploma have no Internet access at home, and half of those making less than $25,000 a year don’t either. In other words, the Americans who most need the GED were blocked by foreign executives seeking to enrich their shareholders.

Some states recoiled at the price increase and the computer-only proposition by ACE and Pearson (now trademarked as GED Testing Service) and put out for bids for other tests. So HiSET (High School Equivalency Test by Educational Testing Service), and TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion by CTB/McGraw-Hill) came forward with their versions, which could be done on paper and were slightly cheaper to administer.

The GED Testing Service is still the exclusive test in about 34 states, but some are offering one of the others or giving a choice to the test-takers. California, for example, now offers all three tests.

Amid this, state adult education directors and the GED Testing Service insist that the passing rate for test-takers has not dropped precipitously, noting that the pass rate has fallen from 70 percent to the low 60s. But percentages aren’t people.

In Ohio, for example, about 6,500 individuals took the test in 2014, compared to about 21,000 in pre-scurry 2012. Illinois went from 27,000 test-takers in 2012 to just 8,983 last year. In California, which averaged about 45,000 test-takers in recent years, only about 20,000 took it last year—and that includes all three tests.

“The early data we’ve seen that hasn’t been made public says that about 40 percent of high school seniors wouldn’t pass this test, and I’d say about 80 percent of the inner-city kids wouldn’t pass it either,” says Kathy Reilly, who has been teaching the high school equivalency test for 25 years and is the director of adult education for the Urban League of Greater Hartford in Connecticut. “And you have to realize that committing to this for more than 12 months to even have a chance is difficult for many people, because things happen in their lives or they have to make time to support themselves or just handle some family situation. These aren’t people who can live off mommy and daddy for a year while they study.”

In years prior to the test change, Reilly says, the Urban League of Greater Hartford was averaging about 40 students each year passing the GED. In 2014, two passed. So far this year, just one.

Another unintended consequence of this new and much harder test is the extremely low numbers coming out of state prison systems. In Kentucky, for example, in fiscal year 2013 (the last full year the previous test was given) state inmates earned 1,135 GED diplomas. In the fiscal year ending in June 2015, that number fell to 126, according to the state’s department of corrections.

Not only are fewer coming out of prison with a GED, they may no longer be getting out early. Some states give a prison sentence reduction (sometimes called “educational good time”) as an inducement to use time in lock-up in a positive way. American prisons and jails are packed with dropouts; two out of five inmates don’t have a diploma or GED, according to 2003 figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which also reported that one in four state prison inmates said they had completed the GED while doing time.

Making the path to a diploma more difficult is seen by some as working against the rehabilitation function of incarceration. “It is a national tragedy that will continue to have repercussions for years,” says Stephen J. Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, the largest prison educational organization in the country.


But a diploma isn’t a right, and it should be more than a participation trophy, which many suggested the old GED had become.

The idea that a “good-enough diploma” is in no way good enough trickles from the president on down. The national dialogue on education today is more about universal—and free—community college, tamping down student debt, and even giving federal prisoners access to Pell grants for college education, and less about tapping high school dropouts as a resource and not an embarrassment. “High school itself is about higher standards and better assessments,” according to the White House, which argues higher education is the ticket to the middle class. “Earning a post-secondary degree or credential is no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few; rather, it is a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy. Over this decade, employment in jobs requiring education beyond a high school diploma will grow more rapidly than employment in jobs that do not; of the 30 fastest-growing occupations, more than half require post-secondary education.”

“It had become clear in recent years, based on feedback from employers, colleges and universities and testtakers themselves, that the value of the old GED credential and the number of people taking the test had eroded,” wrote Nicole Chestang, vice president and chief strategist for college and career success at ACE, in an email to Pacific Standard. (The organization would not provide examples of anybody who actually thought the value of the old test had eroded.)

“Today’s GED grads want jobs as firefighters, teachers, EMTs, certified nurse assistants, dental hygienists, computer programmers, to name a few,” Chestang continued. “These jobs require more than a high school or GED diploma. They require some college, additional job training or a specialized certification. We would be doing employers and, more importantly, GED testtakers a disservice by giving them a GED credential that doesn’t prepare them for today’s jobs. Whether it is military service, fast food, retail, hospitality or healthcare, employers want employees with the skills that the GED test now measures, like critical thinking, problem solving and digital literacy.”

In his book the Myth of Achievement Tests, University of Chicago economics professor and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman and two co-editors write that “the problems associated with the GED will not be fixed by raising the passing threshold on the same kind of achievement test. The 2014 GED exam may be more cognitively challenging, but it will continue to test only a subset of the skills necessary for success in life.”

That, perhaps, is the problem. A test measuring knowledge-based skills cannot be so easy that one passes by just signing one’s name, but it can’t be so hard that it eliminates worthwhile candidates before they even sit down. The crippling cost to the individual is apparent, but less obvious is the cost to an economy with a now-permanent underclass trapped beneath a Scantron ceiling.

“They raised the bar, and to the best of my knowledge, they did so without any substantive body of research as to how this will produce greater social good, better benefit the well-being of people in GED programs, or even benefit the employers of people with a high school diploma or GED,” says Bernard Bull, assistant vice president of academics for Concordia University Wisconsin.

“The old test measured basic skills that made you successful in most job settings,” says Marcia Leister, who has been teaching the GED test since 1992 at Bellingham Technical College in Washington State. “I never heard from one employer that the GED test was a factor in their employees’ success or failure. What it did, though, was open the door to people to show what they can do. This new test has closed the door to so many, and that includes people who have had good employment histories and put in the extra hours for studying the test.”

Bellingham Technical College averaged about 50 students passing the GED test in the years prior to the change, and has had six pass the test so far this year. “For the life of me, I don’t even know what this new test is measuring,” Leister says.

Bull says it would have been better to phase in the changes over a few years, finding out what works and what doesn’t. “Simply saying that these new standards will produce more capable employees is not adequate. Show me the evidence,” he says. “Look at the types of skills required of people in jobs with a prerequisite of a GED or high school diploma but no higher credential. Show, through a workforce skills assessment, that the old test inadequately prepared people for those jobs.”

What the new test does not address very well, and perhaps works against, is the coming dearth of qualified workers in middle-skills jobs: nursing, computer technology, manufacturing, and other fields that require some post-secondary education and training—computer skills, yes, but not calculus. About half of the U.S. labor force works in those fields, and the shortage of those types of workers is expected to grow substantially as Baby Boomers retire. About 25 million new middle-skill job openings are expected by 2020.

“We have seen so many people just give up, and we as a society will pay for that in some way,” predicts Dan McLaughlin at Seeds of Literacy. “We have effectively told people who want to improve their lives that we don’t really care if they do or not.”

In Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the Utica and Marcellus natural-gas shale fields, there is a shortage of certified welders for drilling operations. Rosado could easily fill one of those jobs and triple his salary—with a GED diploma. He is hoping he will pass the test by the end of this year, and indicated he will continue to study until he does.

Neustedt is easily qualified for a two- or four-year registered nurse program, but she is having a hard time with the math portion of the new GED. Like Rosado, she will continue studying, and hopes to pass all four parts by year’s end.

“I don’t want anything for free,” Neustedt says, “but I have proven in my job that I am good at providing health care to the patients who need it, and there is a need for someone like me to move up in the system. But I can’t do it because I dropped out of high school and had a daughter. It’s not even frustrating any more. It’s almost like the people who designed this test have no idea why people even take it.”


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