Commentary: The Hole in High School Equivalency

Here's one misconception about the GED: It stands for General Education Development program, not, as is commonly thought, General Equivalency Degree. Here's another: The program doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

The GED was introduced in 1942 to give returning World War II veterans who hadn't finished high school a chance to show they were on a cognitive par with regular graduates. In the late 1940s states began allowing civilians to take the GED, too, and by 1957 there were more civilians with certificates than vets. Fueled by government policies that encouraged it as a second chance for dropouts and by its widespread use in prisons, the numbers of GED holders soared from 50,000 per year in 1960 to more than a million in 2001. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and GED Testing Service, 12 percent of all high school credentials are now GEDs.

Despite raising standards and making the GED tougher to pass in 2002, 700,000 Americans still take the eight-hour multiple-choice test each year. And although the 500,000 annual GED recipients are counted as high school graduates for key national education statistics, new work by the Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman, revealed here for the first time, shows that its value is negative.

Looking at a random sample of 1,000 GED holders five years removed from gaining their certificates, Heckman found that recipients have easier entrée into colleges than dropouts, but they often blow the opportunity. Only 31 percent actually enroll, with the large majority of certificate holders going to two-year colleges. Seventy-seven percent last no longer than one semester. They ultimately earn an average of $30,855—roughly the same as high school dropouts when you account for noneducational differences like household background that make the statistical comparison like-for-like.

Heckman is an empiricist. He also has a cause: He believes society invests in education too late for it to make much difference. "To solve later skill deficits, we need to invest in closing early skill deficits," says Heckman. "Waiting to address these issues makes the remedy much more costly—or impossible." Countless studies show that increased spending on early childhood education would affect both cognition and character at its most malleable, lowering dropout and juvenile delinquency rates by building "soft skills" such as discipline, self-esteem, motivation, collegiality and persistence.

Heckman's work shows that GED recipients do about as well as regular high school grads on academic tests. To that extent, the program works. But his analysis also demonstrates that those "soft skills" are what American education misses amid the growing obsession to reward cognitive learning. GED recipients who fail do so not because of their inability to do math but because of non-cognitive abilities.

Certainly there are GED recipients who meld academic achievement with high personal motivation. The majority tend to lead distinctly unstable lives, with patterns of drug use and divorce. Governments may deem their certificate "equivalent" to a traditional high school degree, but the labor market does not. They earn no more than high school dropouts.

Still, on both a state and federal level, the GED is encouraged. The federal Adult Education and Job Corps programs use it extensively, with Adult Education responsible for about half the GED certificates. In addition, $400 million is made available for prison education programs including the GED. One federal report says 26 percent of inmates get GEDs.

Its popularization accelerates the high school dropout rate, Heckman shows, by offering the less motivated a simpler alternative to high school. Factor out GEDs, and the U.S. high school graduation rate would decline by 7.4 percent. For black males, the drop is 10.3 percent—bringing them to the same level they were at in 1960. But we don't factor them out and instead allow failing education systems to mask the poor job they've done closing the achievement gap. President George W. Bush was correct in citing a "soft bigotry of low expectations" as he pushed the original No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The public demands accountability, and politicians rush toward what's easiest to measure. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently told Congress that it "is absolutely the goal" to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the key law on federal policy toward public schools, replete with the requirement to have all students proficient in math and reading by 2014. If he believes, as his boss clearly does, that this is an era of evidence-based decision making, he and state policymakers should heed Heckman—and avoid the false sense of progress the GED bestows.

Warren is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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