As a 16-year-old, Walter Smith was on his way up. He was active in his church and the local 4-H club in his hometown of Cairo, Georgia. He excelled in track and field, baseball, and basketball. He was one of the state’s top young orators. A Boy Scout, he was a senior patrol leader and a life scout. When Jackie Robinson visited Smith’s high school, the principal chose Walter to show the famous baseball player around.
But this was 1951, just four years before the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Mississippi would energize the country’s nascent Civil Rights movement. So when Smith, who is black, had a dispute with a white man, he was forced to flee and relocate to the relative safety of the North. “I had to run,” says Smith, recalling the events of six decades past.
Smith dropped out of high school and took up residence with relatives in New York City’s Harlem section. Circumstances demanded that he work during the day, pushing carts in the garment district, and attend high school at night. But he frequently fell asleep in class, exhausted from his day job. Forced by a teacher to choose between academics and work, Smith dropped out of school a second time. “I had no choice,” he says. “I had to work to support myself.”
Five years later, with a 33-month stint in the Army behind him, Smith returned to Georgia. At the urging of his mother, he met with John W. Rembert, the founding president of the soon-to-be-opened Gibbs Junior College, to explore the possibility of resuming his studies. The meeting got off to an inauspicious start when Rembert asked Smith about his high school diploma. Smith hung his head and admitted that he didn’t have one.
“Tell you what,” Smith recalls Rembert saying. “You get your GED and come back here, and we’ll make something out of you.”
Rembert’s words proved to be prophetic. Smith passed the GED test at age 23 and enrolled at Gibbs, where he served as the college’s first class president before earning a two-year associate degree. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida A&M University, where he would later serve as president, and a PhD in higher education from Florida State University. His distinguished career eventually included serving as provost and president of community and four-year colleges, developing a technical education curriculum for the Saturn V rocket program, building the first community college in South Africa, and serving as a monitor for that country’s 1994 elections, which resulted in the presidency of Nelson Mandela.
For almost 70 years, passing the GED test has offered a fresh start for 18 million students like Smith who failed to earn a high school diploma. For the most part, it has been (and remains) the only such prospect available. The GED test has served as a bridge to postsecondary education, career opportunities, and living wages that, on average, are $7,000 more per year than those earned by people without a high school credential.
Asked to assess the role of the test in his success, Smith minces no words. “It was everything,” he says. “If I had not passed the GED, it’s a possibility that I would have been working in the garment district for the rest of my life.”
The world has changed since Smith took the GED test. A decade into the 21st century, the GED test, like our nation’s high schools themselves, is challenged to keep pace with the educational and workplace demands of a global economy. The need for higher-level skills is obvious and driven at breakneck speeds by the pace of information technology and other innovation. At a time when the country needs more Walter Smiths, the reality is there have never been more people in need of a second chance to earn a high school credential than today. If it is to remain that second chance, the GED test must be strengthened and made available more broadly to meet this new demand.
Therein lies the impetus behind the recently unveiled GED 21st Century Initiative. The American Council on Education (ACE), developer of the test, is seeking to remake the GED Testing Service into a mechanism for transforming adult education. ACE essentially aspires to be a catalyst for the evolution of what it refers to as the adult education ecosystem. The first of three main components to the effort is the development of a new, more rigorous GED test that ensures test passers’ readiness for college or career.
ACE originally launched the GED Testing Service after World War II, spurred by the need in the 1940s to give returning solders, many of whom had been drafted before earning their high school diplomas, an opportunity to become eligible for the postsecondary education benefits provided by the GI Bill. Throwing open the doors of educational access to millions of veterans, a door further widened by the growing community college sector, was a primary driver of the country’s post-war growth. Now, as the country grapples with another generation of undereducated Americans and gripping economic challenges, ACE seeks a wholesale transformation of the testing program.
The enormity of the undertaking moved ACE to engage with Pearson, the world’s largest education company. “It is literally a joint venture,” says ACE President Molly Corbett Broad, of the public-private partnership. “In the next few years, the new company will put its energy into moving as quickly as possible to develop this new test and the capacity to administer it by computer.” The computer-administered version of the current test will be available in all states by 2013, and the retooled test will go live in 2014.
Because the test remains the only vehicle for large numbers of high school dropouts to return to a path of educational attainment or to achieve their educational aspirations, the initiative to rework the program to meet contemporary challenges “is the most optimistic thing any of us who pay attention to this have seen in a very long time,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Growing Challenges, Rising Standards
The challenge is clear. The percentage of new jobs requiring postsecondary education or training is growing unabated. By 2018, economists predict, nearly two-thirds of new positions will require some form of postsecondary education. Currently, some 39 million Americans lack any high school credential, including 15 million who are between the ages of 18 and 44, the prime working years.
The consequence of students who dropped out of school in 2007 alone shrinks U.S. economic activity by $329 billion, says Randy Trask, president and chief executive officer of the GED Testing Service LLC. Conversely, if each of the country’s 51 largest metropolitan areas increased educational attainment by just 1 percent, the return on investment would total $124 billion annually, says Chalmer Naugle, GED administrator for the state of Colorado, citing a statistic from Lumina Foundation for Education.
“This [initiative] is in the full spirit of what we mean when we talk about the American dream of every generation being better off than the previous one, and education is a key,” says Broad. “It is stalled right now.”
Indeed, a student drops out of school roughly every 26 seconds—adding up to 1.3 million dropouts every year. About half as many people, 800,000, sit for the GED test annually and about half a million earn the credential each year, “a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who need the benefits of the high school equivalency” credential, says Marty Kehe, vice president of the GED Testing Service LLC’s products division.
he GED 21st Century Initiative isn’t happening in a vacuum, but rather in the context of a broader understanding that bolstering educational attainment is imperative to the country’s economic well-being. Indeed, the effort aligns with other major actions to boost the country’s education system and enhance global competitiveness and economic growth. Those undertakings include President Obama’s goal of having “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020.
The 21st Century Initiative also will align with emerging national educational standards, including the Common Core State Standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with input from ACE and others. More than 40 states have agreed to abide by the standards, which promote national benchmarks for what students should study and know, from elementary school through high school graduation.
An advocate of the Common Core State Standards Initiative is the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Education Leadership and Policy, located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The institute’s namesake, former North Carolina governor James Hunt, enthusiastically supports the initiative to remake the GED test so that it will align with state standards. The hope is that matching high school graduation requirements with the expectation colleges have for incoming students will resolve the thorny problem of limited access to and attainment of postsecondary education.
As governor of North Carolina for 16 years, Hunt traveled the world seeking out opportunities to expand the state’s economy. “I saw the competition we’re up against. I saw that our workers have to be knowledgeable and highly skilled … and they have to go into higher education,” says Hunt, who also was chairman of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education for 10 years. The National Center promotes policies that advance high-quality education and training beyond high school. The plan to create a more rigorous, more meaningful GED test is “an invaluable step in making America more competitive and successful, in having the high-skill jobs that will bring prosperity back to our country,” he adds. “We have to have more highly educated, skilled workers, and they’ve got to have a credential beyond high school.”
So why should college and university presidents care about a revamped and more robust GED test that will indicate recipients’ readiness for postsecondary education and the workplace?
“They ought to care,” says Smith, president emeritus of Florida A&M University, “about the reconfiguration and strengthening of the GED [testing program] so that they will have a [student] on their campuses that will make them as proud as the presidential scholar that they recruited directly from high school.”
Moreover, the country is facing hard fiscal choices about what it can and cannot afford. Well before the current economic crisis, college presidents became accustomed to justifying rising tuition costs and making the case that their institutions provided value. A GED testing program that aims to widen the college-going pipeline, increase readiness of first-year college students, and reduce their time to completion will reflect well on institutions of higher learning.
“Because ACE has, through the GED test, the one means for enhancing the college-readiness pipeline, there is every reason to believe that success in this initiative will yield improvement in retention and completion,” Broad says. “Therein, I think, is the foundation of why college and university presidents should be interested in the GED [Initiative]. Over the last decade especially, the gap between graduating from high school and being ready to go to college has widened to the point where in excess of 40 percent of people going on to higher education require some form of remediation, frequently multiple forms of developmental education, to be prepared to do college-level work.”
This past April, a city bus ferried Ricky Martinez to a test-taking center in Denver. He was scheduled to sit for the math portion of the GED test. He tried to study—anything to alleviate his nervousness—but the bus’s squeaky brakes and the cacophony of school kids on a field trip made that all but impossible. He had taken the first parts of the exam on the first Monday in February, the day his daughter, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot who had graduated from Colorado University with full academic honors, departed for Afghanistan. Following years of estrangement, father and daughter had reconnected after Martinez’s release from prison the previous August. Things were finally looking up.
Martinez dropped out of high school in 1977, his senior year, after he learned that unexcused absences when he was a sophomore had left him short of the required credits he needed to graduate. Apprised that he would need to attend summer school if he wanted to earn a diploma, he declined. “I rebelled,” says Martinez, a former altar boy.
By the early 1980s—when it was much easier than it is today to earn a living wage without a high school credential—Martinez was working in a hospital records department. “Back in the day, a lot of [employers] didn’t care if you had your high school diploma,” he says. “Now you can’t get a job working in fast food if you don’t have a high school diploma, it seems.”
Things began to unravel following the death of Martinez’s eight-year-old son and the murder of his father. He was fired for missing work. Unable to land another good position, he took part-time jobs. Martinez turned to drugs and alcohol, which accelerated his descent, and engaged in petty crime, mostly shoplifting, as a means of support. He was locked up numerous times. He also tried his hand at burglary, a felony. He failed at that, as well, and ended up in a low-security prison. The inmates he met there were mostly decent, intelligent people, Martinez says, yet many hadn’t graduated from high school.
“I made a promise to myself that I would start earning money the right way,” he says. “Enough was enough.”
Martinez now wants to become an x-ray technician, an occupation that sparked his interest when he was a boy. During visits to the hospital with his accident-prone sister, he observed the x-ray techs in action. “I connected to helping people,” he says.
To those who believe the GED test is easy or not demonstrative of a successful test taker having achieved the equivalent academic attainment of a high school education, take note. The GED Testing Service points out that the test is normed so that about 40 percent of current high school seniors would not pass on their first attempt. Martinez aced each of the five parts of the test. “It was the best decision I made in over 30 years,” he says. “I went yesterday to apply for college.”
Building a Bridge to Success
In at least one respect, Martinez has already beaten the odds: Most high school dropouts don’t take and pass the GED test. And the college aspirations of those who do pass often go unfulfilled. The goal of the new GED Testing Service LLC is to provide more individuals who want a second chance at a high school credential the opportunity to earn one and realize their postsecondary education and career goals.
Aside from developing the assessment system and GED test, the blueprint for the GED 21st Century Initiative also involves reengineering the GED ecosystem to (1) develop a national preparation program to help students master the skills needed to pass the even more rigorous test; and (2) delineate pathways that will help students navigate what can be a complex tangle of education and career choices. Without a reliable roadmap, students can easily get lost and drop out again. This transition network will help ensure students attain postsecondary education and training, and secure good jobs with livable wages.
“A lot of people who [pass] the GED test are really capable, but they get discouraged about taking the next steps,” says Ajit Gopalakrishnan, GED administrator for the Connecticut State Department of Education, which issues a diploma to people who pass the GED test in that state. “Trying to navigate a system that is so cumbersome, they give up.”
The most conspicuous part of the 21st Century Initiative is the overhaul of the test itself. As noted, the pencil-and-paper version will be made available for computer delivery, an advancement that should increase opportunities for students to sit for the exam.
Moving the test to an electronic platform also will provide test developers with the flexibility to break out of the multiple-choice format and incorporate the latest advances in testing methodology. The new test, for example, might include questions that require “constructed responses”—that is, those that must be written out rather than selected from a given list—that better measure skills. “We want to have a test that we’re proud of. It’s not just a poor second chance. It’s a high-level, high-quality, rigorous second chance opportunity for our adults,” says Gopalakrishnan, who views a high school diploma or equivalent as a basic credential, like a birth certificate. By itself it won’t do much for you, but you can use it to acquire other credentials that will open up new worlds.
The GED test, until now a relatively discrete examination, will become a vehicle for assessing where people are, where they want to go, and how they can get there, say the initiative’s architects. Formerly a pass-fail test, it will evolve into a diagnostic tool with three or four levels of outcomes and specific information about the test taker’s abilities in various areas. That data will help test takers, colleges, and employers determine the best path for reaching mutual goals, whether a course of study or a potential career field, testing service leaders say.
“With public education and standards changing so quickly, you have to imagine that the GED test has to change as well,” says Trask. “We no longer are describing the test as an endpoint. It will be the starting point.”
In fact, the exam will no longer be the only test offered by the GED testing program. Other diagnostic instruments will emerge for measuring various academic and non-academic aptitudes, among them persistence, the ability to learn quickly, and decision- making skills. Those assessments are important because “we tend to confuse ability with persistence,” says Gopalakrishnan.
Adult students also need ways to quickly rise to the challenge of doing college-level work. Too often, students are sentenced to an unrelenting course of remedial classes that sap finances, patience, and confidence. The result? More dropouts and a persistent pattern of stop-and-start academic pursuit that undermines degree attainment.
The new initiative recognizes that “a lot of people who pursue the GED credential do it on their own and have a hard time figuring out” how to reach the goal, says Kehe. “We want to systematize that in a much more detailed way.” To that end, the new GED Testing Service LLC intends to partner with educators, developers of test-prep materials, and other players in the adult education world to produce more effective means of deploying developmental education. Officials anticipate a process for certifying the best programs and broadening access to those that are exemplary.
“There are programs available in pockets, and we want them to be nationally available,” says Nicole Chestang, executive vice president of the GED Testing Service LLC. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”
They do, however, want to get the economy revving again, and they want to make sure that everybody has a chance to get on board.
“We want the GED test to be more of a bridge going forward,” Chestang says. “We want more adults to have a fighting chance to earn a sustainable wage and to support themselves and a family, instead of having a credential that allows them to get five part-time jobs.”
John Pulley is a veteran journalist with expertise in education and information technology. In 2006, he founded The Pulley Group, an editorial services agency based in the Washington, DC area.