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Focus On Basics

Volume 2, Issue B ::: June 1998

NCSALL's Focus on Research: The Process of Passing the GED

by Barbara Garner
"Much work has been done on the impact of the GED," says John Tyler, researcher on a National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) study of the GED, "We don't know much about the testing process itself, though. Which tests provide the highest hurdles? For whom does the re-testing feature of the GED matter the most? Who would be most affected in a move to raise the passing standards? This study attempts to answer those questions."

To obtain a General Educational Development credential (GED), a candidate must take a battery of five tests covering mathematics, writing, science, social sciences, and interpretation of literature and the arts. Passage in most states requires that a test taker's scores on all tests be above a minimum standard, and that the average of the five tests be above a minimum standard. The GED Testing Service (GEDTS) sets minimum standards; individual states can set higher standards. (Policies may vary from state to state, and were changed in 1997.)

GED candidates can re-take tests, and many of them do. While local policy may differ, GEDTS policy allows candidates to take the tests individually, in whatever sequence they choose, or all at once. "The system is potentially complicated," Tyler explains, "with candidates making choices about re-testing or quitting, as well as about which tests to take at each attempt."

Using data from the state Departments of Education in Florida and Connecticut, he studied the test-taking process of GED candidates who were 16 to 21 years of age when they tested in those states between 1988 and 1990. He had 15,610 observations from Florida and 4,600 from Connecticut. The study differentiates between whites, Hispanics, and African Americans. Other ethnic groups were represented in such low numbers that they could not be reported.

Most GED teachers would say that the math test is the hardest for their students to pass. The next hardest is the writing test. Tyler's research validates this. In Florida and Connecticut, among those test takers who failed to receive a GED, the math and writing tests generated the lowest scores. "But," Tyler says, "we found considerable gender differences." In both states, the females who failed to pass the GED scored lowest on the math test; for males, the writing test was hardest. This suggests that male drop outs leave school with relatively poorer writing skills than do females; females leave with relatively weaker math skills. While many studies of K-12 students show similar trends, the research Tyler did uncovered stark differences. Teachers who take this into account by providing extra help in math for women and in writing for men, for example, may improve their students' GED pass rates.

Across ethnicity, the states differed, which was curious. In Connecticut, a much higher percentage of African-Americans relative to both whites and Hispanics found the math test to be the hardest. This difference was not found in Florida.

Testing and Re-Testing

Tyler and colleagues also looked at patterns of test taking. Do people take them all at once, or a few tests at a time? Who passes the first time around? Who re-tests? The full battery takes seven hours and 35 minutes to complete, so it might seem appealing to space them out. Tyler found, however, that about 93 percent of candidates in Connecticut and 96 percent in Florida took all tests on the first attempt. No significant gender or racial differences appeared.

As Tyler points out, "People can take the practice tests and get a pretty good idea of whether or not they are going to pass. So you'd think that people would know when they were ready to take the test, and that everyone who took the test would come pretty close to passing." This is not the case. Overall, only about 64 percent of those in the study passed on the first attempt, and many had results that were far from passing.

Racial differences in pass rates surfaced. Within each state, whites passed the first time at higher rates than Hispanics and Hispanics passed at higher rates than African-Americans. Across states, the patterns bear further examination: only small initial pass rate differences appeared across states for whites and Hispanics, but the initial pass rates for African-Americans were substantially higher in Connecticut than in Florida.

Data on re-testing, a key feature of the GED system, are presented in Table 1. While everyone benefits from the re-testing option, the African-American pass rate rose the most. "This finding raises the same plausible set of conclusions as the section on who struggles most with which test," explains Tyler. "Namely, it indicates that whites drop out with a much better set of skills than minority group members. What are the implications of this? Does the GED lead to improved skills for minority group members, since they would, on average, have more preparation to do to pass the exams? Or is it possible that the re-testing feature subverts this possible route to better skills by primarily serving as a try it till I pass' vehicle? These racial differences on first attempt have never before been revealed. They are an important piece that has been missing from our understanding."

In trying to interpret those findings, limitations of the data leave some important questions unanswered. "We just don't have enough information to answer additional questions, and there will always be unanswered questions," Tyler states. "For example, even if we had a flag for program participation, we would like to have information on the quality of programs, length of time in programs, what the program did. Even if we had program participation information, severe selection problems would confound interpretation. For example, what if we found that program participants had higher initial pass rates than non-participants? Would that be an indication that participation in the program tended to raise scores relative to what they would have been otherwise? Or, does it indicate that more able and conscientious drop outs tend to enroll in programs as insurance for passing, while less motivated drop outs tend not to enroll? Without more data, we don't know the answer to that.

"Alternatively, what if we found that program participants tended to have lower initial pass rates than non-participants? That does not necessarily tell us that the program is doing nothing. It could be that the most unskilled are enrolling in programs, that the programs are doing a good job on average in raising scores, but they are dealing with a very unskilled group relative to the non-program population."

Still Working

Tyler is now working on understanding who would be affected in a move to raise passing standards. He is checking to see if race differences exist for those who fail on the first attempt but are right on the margin and those who fail dramatically on the first attempt. And he will also look at people who are right on the margin of passing and see if the gender differences in math and writing exist there. "Maybe when you get to people with higher levels of basic cognitive skills, the gender differences wash out," he suggests. For more information on his work, contact John Tyler via e-mail at The findings of his study of the economic impact of the GED begin on page 1 of this issue; the full report can be ordered for $10 from NCSALL Reports, World Education, 44 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210. The full report on testing patterns will be available from the same address next fall.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL