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Forgotten Segment of the Educational Pipeline
January 23, 2013 - 10:04pm

When parents, teachers, lawmakers and communities debate over which part of the American education system should receive the most scrutiny or support, adult education, specifically General Educational Development (GED),  is rarely in contention. Conceptually adult education programs serve those who depart school without diplomas and are now seeking a credential to access the workforce or postsecondary opportunities.  We talk less about the GED, perhaps, because the need for such a credential in some ways represents a failure of K-12 systems.  However, with a new version of the GED set to debut in 2014, it seems we should be discussing the use of the new GED as a primary “stop gap” tool in our educational system.

In 2011 there were 39 million adults over the age of 16 who did not have a diploma, were not enrolled in high school and did not have an equivalent certification.  Most of these adults are minorities, grew up in impoverished communities, attended under resourced schools and had parents who could not afford to supplement their educational deficiencies with home libraries, trips to the museum and personal tutors. Neither college nor work represent good options for these individuals.

There are virtually no opportunities for young people without experience or a diploma. The average annual income for adults without a diploma is $20,000—$10,000 less than adults with a high school diploma.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the unemployment rate for adults without diplomas was 14.9% percent in 2011, compared to 8.2% for all Americans that year.  And, those who leave school before graduation are 65 times more likely to be incarcerated before age 24 compared to their counterparts who earn a diploma. It is no surprise that in 2011 more than one million adults enrolled in adult education programs and 624,000 actually attempted the GED. 

In 2012 the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Adult and Vocational Education awarded $595 million to states to administer adult education classes.  In return, states are tasked with preparing adult learners for various certifications, most often the GED exam which has produced less than desirable results. Three challenges must be addressed in order recapture a larger percentage of students who have leaked out of America’s educational pipeline.

  1. Program standards—Although the programs are federally funded there are few standards (outside of reporting student completion rates) for the design of programs, credentials for GED instructors, or common measures of effectiveness.  This makes it exceedingly difficult to produce evidence of value and effectiveness for what represents an important last chance for so many students.
  2. Address critical disparities—Research shows GED success rates mirror educational disparities in every other segment of the educational pipeline. Of those who actually attempt the exam, White test-takers have the highest success rate at 72.0% while Blacks, for example, only pass the test 44% of the time. And, younger test-takers score significantly better than their older counterparts who typically have been out of school for much longer. These disparities matter given that the fastest growing groups of young people in the nation are also the most likely to require a path to reenter educational systems.
  3. Improve the value of the GED—Labor statistics suggest that the average working person will earn the same income after passing the GED as someone without a diploma. A major impetus for revamping the GED was to create better alignment between the exam and workforce competencies as well as post-secondary entry requirements. Earning a GED must have value if educators claim that it will remain a necessary investment of nearly 600 million taxpayer dollars.

A couple of years ago plans were announced to design and implement a new GED, one that would remedy many of the challenges of the current system.  The new format promises to be more rigorous (based on Common Core standards), more expensive and only available electronically. Adult educators and advocates have received this news with more questions than relief.  Some question whether the new format will further marginalize students who may not be computer savvy, older students who attended schools before Common Core standards were adopted, or those who simply cannot afford the $120.00 price tag.  Currently, students can take the GED in sections. Each section they pass remains valid until they complete the entire battery.  On January 1, 2014 all incomplete exams will be expunged and students will have to begin again. As an adult educator who recently failed the computerized test sampler for the new GED, I’m concerned about what the new exam means for the millions of students relying on the GED to gain access to mainstream America. Could a better, more rigorous, more efficient exam mean lower pass rates? Could the challenges already present in GED preparation programs be exacerbated?

Success in adult education, which encompasses 16 year-olds and grandparents, is inextricably linked to every other social inequity in American society.  All educational stakeholders should take up more stock in conversations about adult learners and the tools we use to educate them.

Guest blogger Erica Nicole Griffin is program associate at the Southern Education Foundation.


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