May 15, 2004
More Youths Opt for G.E.D., Skirting High-School Hurdle
testing system created more than half a century ago to help World War II veterans earn the equivalent of a high school diploma has increasingly become a way for teenagers to short-circuit high school.
Roughly one of every seven high school diplomas granted in the United States in recent years has gone to someone who has passed the tests, known as the G.E.D. And the proportion of school-age students taking that route has risen sharply.
Nationally, teenagers accounted for 49 percent of those earning G.E.D.'s in 2002, up from 33 percent a decade earlier. Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York were among the states where teenagers accounted for more than half of those earning G.E.D.'s. in 2002.
"The proportion of teenagers getting G.E.D.'s has doubled since 1989, while overall high school graduation rates have declined slightly," said Duncan Chaplin, an economist at the Urban Institute in Washington.
The growth has been especially pronounced in New York City. Last year, more than 37,000 school-age students were in G.E.D. programs run by the school system, up from 25,500 two years earlier.
Most educators view the G.E.D. as a valuable option for people who do not make it through high school, but they do not consider it equivalent.
"The G.E.D. was intended to be a second chance for adults; it was never intended to replace a high school education," said Anita Caref, director of the adult literacy program at Brooklyn College.
Experts attribute the flood of young people in part to the difficulty in finding a decent job without a high school diploma, and in part to the increased difficulty of earning a traditional high school diploma in many states. New York, for example, has made passing five Regents exams a condition of graduation, and no longer offers a lesser diploma for weaker students.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law and state efforts to hold schools more accountable, schools have more incentive to discourage weak students from staying. Students who transfer to G.E.D. programs are usually off school rolls, but in many states are not counted as dropouts.
Mr. Chaplin, of the Urban Institute, said he had "found pretty strong evidence that the G.E.D. option has been encouraging kids to drop out of high schools nationwide."
"The rules governing the G.E.D. have become more lenient over time," he said. "Under No Child Left Behind, we're holding schools very strictly accountable for test scores, but barely holding them accountable for students who drop out or go into G.E.D. programs. It is like holding hospitals accountable for the condition of patients who leave, but ignoring the number who die. It's a perverse incentive system."
Strictly speaking, the G.E.D. is not an educational program but a set of five tests requiring more than seven hours and covering reading, writing, mathematics, social studies and science.
As with the College Board's SAT exams, students are not required to enroll in any classes before taking the tests, officially the Tests of General Educational Development, which are administered by the American Council on Education in Washington. But many students need help to pass the G.E.D., and a patchwork of programs has evolved to assist them, run not only by school districts but also by community organizations, universities and proprietary schools.
"There seems to be a whole shadow system of schools," said Elisa Hyman, deputy director of Advocates for Children, which has charged New York City high schools with pushing their weakest students into G.E.D. programs without proper counseling. "Thousands of kids are participating in this alternative diploma track that is clearly inferior to a regular diploma."
There are no counts of how many students are in G.E.D. programs nationwide, but G.E.D. directors say that their programs are overflowing and that the number of young people has shot up.
One sign of the increase is reflected in the number of young people who take the tests or pass them, although they represent only a portion of the young people in G.E.D. programs. In 2001, about 2.8 million students earned traditional high school diplomas, while about 648,000 G.E.D.'s were awarded, including 266,000 to teenagers.
With the introduction of a new, harder test in 2002, the number of G.E.D.'s fell to 330,000. But Joan Chikos Auchter, executive director of the G.E.D. Testing Service, and others predict that the numbers will bounce back.
G.E.D. preparation programs vary. Typically, classes are only a couple of hours a day, sometimes just two or three days a week. Often there is no standard curriculum, and there are no state licensing requirements for teachers. Many classes focus on the types of problems the students will encounter on the exam.
At the Jamaica Learning Center in Queens, one of the first things Arnold Smith does when he arrives at his classroom is to post fractured sentences, full of grammar, spelling and punctuation errors like the ones students will have to spot and correct on the G.E.D.
One morning in February, Mr. Smith's students were focused on this sentence: "Excited and anxious, the gift's was quickly unwrapped."
"This is a hard one," Mr. Smith said.
A student responded, "No it ain't."
But it took some hints before the students could identify all the errors.
The students were mostly attentive. The pace was quick. And Mr. Smith was nonjudgmental and encouraging.
One student later praised Mr. Smith's method, saying: "Now I get it. I never got it before."
The Jamaica center sends about 300 students a year to take the tests, and about 80 percent pass. But hundreds more are not close to taking the test, and many drop out. Some are in basic literacy classes because they read below sixth-grade level. Some are in pre-G.E.D. classes, where the reading level is grades seven to nine. Only those reading at a 10th-grade level or above are put in the actual G.E.D. classes.
G.E.D. administrators say the teenage students bring problems that adult students do not have.
"Not only do the younger students arrive with academic deficiencies," said Carlo Baldi, director of the Adult Literacy Program at the City College of New York, "but they often come in with pretty serious deficiencies in life skills, too. Things like attendance, responsibility, maintaining communications."
Still, Mr. Baldi and others are reluctant to turn young students away.
"A high school diploma is a very important currency," said Leslee Oppenheim," director of curriculum and instruction at the City University of New York. "This opens all kinds of doors."
Even students who obtain a G.E.D., however, are not home free. They typically earn less than high school graduates, and are less likely to go to college. The Army limits G.E.D.-holders to no more than 5 percent of its enlistees, and they do not qualify for the same enlistment options, said S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the Army Recruiting Command.
But to many struggling high school students, the issue is not so much the future as the unhappy present.
Some students choose the G.E.D. on their own; others, struggling academically, are told by school officials that they would be better off in a G.E.D. program. Recent immigrants with weak English are frequently discouraged from enrolling in high school and pointed toward G.E.D. programs.
In one recent study, John W. Sipple of Cornell University and David H. Monk and Kieran Killeen of Pennsylvania State University "found evidence that teachers advise students of the G.E.D. option as early as eighth grade." Dr. Sipple declined to name any schools.
Many students say they know that the G.E.D. is viewed as a lesser degree, but that the atmosphere in G.E.D. programs is preferable to what they face in high school.
"High school isn't for everybody," said Abdullah Aminnullah, the 17-year-old son of Afghan immigrants, who entered the Jamaica Learning Center last winter. "You don't get as much attention in high school as here," he said, adding, "The teachers here really care and pay attention to you, and they really teach."
Mr. Aminnullah, who said he kept getting into scrapes and was suspended, said he chose the G.E.D. after learning that he had accumulated few credits toward graduation. But he had no problem passing the G.E.D. almost immediately.
His classmate Priscilla Catapano also saw the G.E.D. as a lifesaver. She enrolled at the Jamaica Learning Center last November, three months after her 17th birthday, when she realized that she could not graduate with her class.
She had cut classes in ninth grade — "It was stupid," she says now — and missed more classes later because of medical problems. She could not bear to be left behind, and passed the G.E.D. this spring.
"If you are just getting a job, you are not going to get the best job with a G.E.D.," Ms. Catapano said. She added: "I figured that once you are in college, who cares whether you have a high school diploma or a G.E.D.? And I'm confident that I will complete college."