More teens drop out, take GED

Letting high-school-age teens take the GED encourages dropouts, some economists and educators fear. A quarter of GED test-takers are 16 to 18 years old, reports the Washington Post. They’re passing up a high school diploma for a much less valuable credential: GED holders earn as little as dropouts who didn’t pass the test and very few go on to earn a higher degree.

“We are making it easy for them to make a mistake,” said James Heckman, a Nobel-Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago.

If cognitive skills were enough, people who demonstrate high school equivalence by passing the GED would perform equally well in the workplace or in college, he said. Instead, dropping out of high school usually portends a lifelong pattern of dropping out, he said. Studies shows high school dropouts have higher rates of job turnover, college attrition, turnover in the military and even divorce, compared with those who stuck it out in high school.

“Sitting in school and showing up on time and doing in school what people ask you to do — those are useful, if dull, tedious traits to have,” Heckman said.

The GED isn’t easy: To pass, test takers must outperform about 40 percent of graduating seniors. It’s being revised to conform to Common Core Standards, which is expected to make it harder.

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  1. Outperform 40% of high school seniors? That’s rather misleading.

    1) Not all high school seniors take part in those norming test. That introduces a bias downwards.

    2) These are unmovated high school seniors, because they are taking a no-stakes test. On the other hand, for actual GED credential seeking test-takers, it is a very high stakes test.

    3) GED test takers often take GED prep classes and/or practice tests. The norming population is is not prepared like that. Thus, many GED test takers are far more familiar with the test.

    4) GED test takers make be specifically prepared for the GED test (i.e. taught to the test). Thus, rather than the GED test representing a random sampling of appropriate content, for them the GED test represents all of the content they have learned and they’ve drilled on those question types and patterns.

    5) 40% of high school seniors at which schools? Are those typical schools? How would you even design such a study? Do you think that richer school districts are taking part in that program — a program which pays districts for their cooperation? Do you think that the GED norming sample is representative of the entire high school senior population in this country?


    The shift to common core is a big change for the GED test. That is true.

    As for the current test not being easy? I think you are wrong there.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    To oversimplify wildly, there are two theories as to why high school graduates make a lot more money than people who don’t have a high school diploma.

    One says that useful skills are learned in high school and employers value them. The other, often called the “signalling” theory, says that most of what is taught in high school is of no vocational value. However, graduation signals traits that do have vocational value, in particular (to quote Bryan Caplan) “intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity.”

    Heckman sure seems to be saying that GED holders don’t get the high school diploma premium because, even though they may have the same “cognitive skills,” they have shown that they don’t have the same conscientiousness and conformity.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Yes, this. Drop-outs with GED’s would do well to fib a bit on job applications. Instead of fessing up and saying the didn’t complete high school, they should say they were homeschooled, and then offer the GED as proof.

      I bet signaling is the reason GED holders do no better than drop outs. Which is sad and probably unfair because it take quite a bit of effort to complete the GED. Also, they should consider applying to a community college and taking a class or two. Even if they don’t graduate they can still write “some college” on an application – another signal likely to get them hired.

  3. Another reality, a news article on CNN shows it’s tougher to get into the military these days, with preferences for High School Graduates vs. GED holders (not to mention, the minimum ASVAB score a GED holder needs to enlist is 65), compared to 29-43 for Diploma holders.

    If the GED holder earns 15 credit hours at a college with a C average (or higher), they qualify for the lower ASVAB entry score.