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By Amy Virshup
Sunday, July 25, 1999

Who Benefits?
Getting your GED is often touted as the first step out of poverty, but critics are arguing that it cannot substitute for a high school diploma

It's 10:45 a.m., and in a suite of aged schoolrooms above the National Baptist Memorial Church on Columbia Road NW, the students of the Academy of Hope have gathered. They're listening as academy co-founder Marja Hilfiker reads the morning's inspirational message, a passage filled with images of tenacity and slow progress – the journey taken step by step, the hundreds of swings of the ax that finally fell the tree. "I will persist," Hilfiker ends. "I will succeed."

Those words resonate with the men and women around her, all of whom are making their own long journeys toward a goal: passing the tests of General Educational Development and obtaining their high school equivalency degrees.

The 14-year-old Academy of Hope is just one of hundreds of programs in Virginia, Maryland and the District offering GED preparation. While its average student is 36 years old, other programs in the area are designed for teenagers and young adults. According to K. Brisbane, director of adult education for the District, most are run by churches and other nonprofits, with a handful of full-time employees and a crew of volunteers. The academy's program is typical: GED aspirants with skills at the eighth-grade level or above study English, social studies, science and math in an informal setting of individualized instruction. There are no deadlines, grades or required courses, and some students spend as long as five years studying and taking portions of the exam before they finally pass. Tuition is $10 a month.

Clustered around Hilfiker are 20 or so students, most of whom are either unemployed or underemployed adults. They are people like Delores Copeland, a heavyset 37-year-old, her hair pulled back in a headband. Copeland explains that she dropped out of school in 10th grade "thinking that I was grown," then worked as a cosmetologist, among other things, before she started using crack. These days she lives in transitional housing and comes to classes four days a week with her baby boy. "I'm putting my life back together slowly but surely," she says. Or goateed Marvin Bynum, 40, who dropped out of Roosevelt High School because he wanted to make money, then worked "all kinds of menial jobs" – busboy, hustling trash for a carting company – until he was disabled by a stroke three years ago. "I realized I needed skills," he says. "I needed to get a GED or have a diploma in order to get into a field like cable work or computer work. That's been my blockage ever since, as far as getting good jobs."

The GED was originally used by colleges and universities to admit World War II veterans who'd never completed high school. It was designed and still is administered by the American Council on Education (ACE), an association of institutions of higher education. Eventually, the states began to grant high school equivalency diplomas to those who passed, and by 1959 the majority of exam-takers were not veterans but ordinary adults who had dropped out of school. The ranks of GED recipients swelled in the mid-'60s as federal education initiatives pushed adults into literacy and training programs. By 1997, more than 800,000 people were taking the GED annually (with some 500,000 passing it). An astonishing one in seven high school degrees awarded is a GED credential.

Over the years, the GED has acquired a mantle of reverence: Famous recipients include comedian Bill Cosby, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), all of whom make public service announcements testifying to how the GED changed their lives. "Getting your GED" is often touted as the first step out of poverty, a path to self-esteem, a way to get a life derailed by bad decisions back on track.

But does the GED live up to its rhetoric? Its critics argue that it is not rigorous enough to substitute for a high school diploma. In some ways, the exam remains an artifact of the moment it was created – 1943, at the height of the progressive movement in education. Progressivism stressed the "scientific measurement" of knowledge (i.e., multiple-choice tests) and de-emphasized traditional high school subjects such as history and foreign languages in favor of "general education" – the abilities to read, write and do basic math and to apply those skills in daily living. The GED's broad outlines reflect the high school curriculum: A quarter of the math test is devoted to algebra and a quarter to geometry; in social studies there are American and world history components, and in science, there are biology and chemistry. With the exception of math, though, the GED doesn't actually test students' knowledge of particular subjects. Instead, it tests their ability to decode the language of those subjects. So rather than being asked to define, say, photosynthesis, exam-takers are given a passage on that process to read and then answer questions based on it.

In the intense national debate around educational standards and tougher school curricula, the GED has been all but ignored. Although states have resisted any attempt to impose a national curriculum for high school students, when it comes to dropouts, they've let the ACE do just that. "Everybody has views on high school reform," says Lois Quinn, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied the exam. "But when you talk GED, it's like we're on another planet."

As the requirements for high school graduation grow more stringent, there's something curious about the choices the educational system holds out: Either stay in high school for four years, take on a challenging course load and, increasingly, pass final competency tests before getting your diploma (19 states now require such tests). Or drop out and sit for the one-day, 71/2-hour GED.

Some observers have suggested that the GED should be more demanding. "We can't lead, we can only mirror," replies Joan Auchter, executive director of the ACE's GED Testing Service. "All we can do is measure what graduating high school seniors know and can do, not what they should be able to do." To set a passing score, the ACE periodically gives the exam to graduating high school seniors and then norms it at the point at which 70 percent of them would pass. (In 1997, it raised the minimum passing score to 225 out of a possible 400, with a minimum of 40 on each of the five tests.)

Though the ACE has tinkered around the edges of the exam – adding a 200-word essay in 1988, for instance – it has never changed the progressive philosophy at its heart. A 2001 revision now in the works will add statistics and probability to the math test (as well as, for the first time, "performance items," i.e., problems to be solved), more complexity throughout the exam, and a new emphasis on information processing. "The world is changing," says Auchter. "We're becoming more of an informational society, and the workplace wants more math and writing."

On a quiet spring afternoon in Anacostia, inside the airy community service center of Covenant House Washington, 17-year-old Nicole Favors is talking about her aspirations. Favors went to several District high schools – including Ballou and Eastern – before having a baby in 10th grade. "After I had my son I stopped going to school," she says. She contemplated going back – "I'm going to miss my prom and graduating the regular way" – but eventually decided to study for her GED at Covenant House. "There are people who care about you here," she says. "They work with you one on one. As long as I get [my degree] I can say I accomplished something." Eventually, she'd like to go to college and become a pediatrician.

In that, Favors is typical of most people who attempt the GED: Two-thirds of candidates say they're taking it in order to get more education, according to the ACE. (At the University of the District of Columbia, the GED is the single largest "feeder school," with recipients making up 6 percent of last year's entering freshmen.) E. Louise White, director of the community service center at Covenant House, which has close to 120 young adults in its GED classes at any one time, stresses that the GED is only a means to an end: "We keep asking the question, After the GED, then what?"

That's an important question, given the economic data about wages of both GED recipients and high school graduates. In 1992, when University of Chicago economist James Heckman looked at the earnings of GED recipients in comparison with dropouts and high school graduates, he found that the GED had a negligible economic benefit. A later study by Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers discovered that white GED recipients gained somewhere between 10 and 19 percent in annual income over dropouts, but that nonwhite GED holders did not. Even for those who did gain, the real dollar increase was hardly dramatic: $1,500 annually. Since the real wages of high school graduates have fallen steadily over the last 20 years, any post-GED gains are illusory, says Heckman. "It's a little like moving up one more level on a sinking ship." GED recipients may have made it from steerage to second class, but they're still on the Titanic. And the only people getting into lifeboats are those with college degrees.

Some GED recipients run into problems in college, too. The City University of New York, which has an open admissions policy similar to UDC's, found that GED recipients in two-year programs were indistinguishable from traditional graduates. In four-year programs they did as well in terms of grades, but not in completing their degrees: Eight years after matriculating, just 11.8 percent of GED holders had received their bachelor's degrees, compared with 37.6 percent of traditional grads. In a 1997 study of almost 13,000 men and women, Harvard education professor Richard Murnane found that just 1 percent of GED holders got bachelor's degrees, compared with 20 percent of traditional high school graduates. Similarly, since the mid-'80s the U.S military has allowed no more than 10 percent of its new recruits to have GED credentials; it found their attrition rate unacceptably high.

John Garvey is in CUNY's academic affairs office and helped revise the university's GED prep program in the early '90s. The problem, he says, is that most GED programs are narrowly focused on getting students to pass the exam, not on teaching them to critique and analyze at the level necessary to succeed at college. And in many cases, he says, the programs simply don't take enough time: "There's something conveyed by sticking high school out for four years, no matter how boring it is or how much you may hate it. If in high school you devoted just one and a half hours a night to studying, that's hundreds of hours over four years to get into the habits of education."

But if not the GED, what? James Heckman argues for stronger efforts to prevent students from dropping out – and for adult high schools for those who do so anyway. The GED, he says, has given the educational establishment an easy way to avoid its own failings: "The U.S. government and state and local governments actively endorse these kinds of programs. They're cheaper, they look to be effective, they're easily monitored, the success statistics look very pleasing, but when you come down to the bottom line, it simply is a massive waste of time."

Bob Wittig, the Academy of Hope's executive director, disagrees. He points to the academy's own 1998-99 survey of its graduates, which contradicts Heckman's conclusions about the GED's economic impact. Eighty-one percent of the academy's 59 respondents made less than $15,000 a year before getting their GED; a third were on public assistance. After passing, 75 percent reported they earned more than $15,000 annually and only 4 percent were on welfare.

The small size of the academy's survey may explain part of the discrepancy. Yet there may be another explanation as well. John Garvey of CUNY speculates that there are two distinct populations taking the GED: One is people from good high schools who were on track to graduate but had some unforeseen circumstance – their father died, they got pregnant – and ended up dropping out; they need minimal preparation before sitting for the exam. The second is made up of people who attended substandard schools and who weren't likely to graduate anyway. "They need much more time and work to build up their skills," he says. But because they do put in the time, they have a real gain in their skill level, which then translates back into the world of school and work. A forthcoming study by Harvard's Richard Murnane backs this up: He found that the GED had the greatest economic benefit for those who had the lowest skills when they dropped out. Furthermore, the benefits aren't necessarily all economic, argues K. Brisbane, the District's adult education director. "The biggest benefit is that people understand their capacity to learn and to manipulate the world in which they live," she says. "It boosts their confidence."

Back at the Academy of Hope, Salena Crump agrees. Crump, thin, with hair cropped close against her head, stopped going to H.D. Woodson High School when she was in 10th grade. "I was young," she says, "and I just wanted to explore life in an adult manner." In fact, she ended up doing "nothing" instead. Jobs at McDonald's, at Ames and as a nurse's aide followed. Now 22, with two children, she has been coming to the academy – her fourth GED program – since January. She wants to become a Metro bus driver, but can't without her high school credential. For the first time, she says, she is focused on the exam: "I make it my business to be here every day."

Whether or not she passes the exam soon, studying for the GED "expands your mind," says Crump. "It's just a good feeling to know things that you've never known before. It's a good feeling.".

Amy Virshup, a senior editor at Smart Money magazine, last wrote for the Magazine about teacher standards.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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