Study finds fewer students taking tougher, more expensive GED

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

It’s one of the rites of passage, a symbolic crossing over to adulthood. But even as state records show local graduation rates are up, every year thousands of New Jersey students don’t graduate from high school. And that is one of the worst ways to head into adulthood, with non-grads making about 60 percent less than their graduate counterparts.

“About 256,000 people in New Jersey don’t graduate high school and about 20 percent of those people are below the federal poverty line,” said the study’s author, Research Director at the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, Elaine Zundl.

In New Jersey, there used to be a pretty easy path to a GED, giving thousands of students who didn’t make it through high school at least a fighting chance to make their way into the job market. But a new study from the Rutgers Center for Women and Work found that changes to how the tests were given, who administered them, and other factors have driven the number of test takers way down.

Between 2012 and 2013, the study found that over 18,000 people passed the high school equivalency tests. But in 2015 to 2016, that number dropped to just over 9,000. But the cost went from around $50 up to $120 in 2014. And the study also found that in the same period, the number of people taking the test fell from more than 30,000 to about 17,000.

Zundl says the study found that the number shifted dramatically once the test administrator, the nonprofit, American Council on Education, was replaced by a public-private partnership with Pearson VUE.

“The test was a paper and pencil test. It was really ubiquitous. It was offered in most schools in most areas pretty easily,” she noted. “After the changes in 2014, it became computerized and only certain test centers were able to administer it.”

Zundl admits the study was somewhat hampered by the lack of demographic data the state makes available and the study wasn’t designed to measure the success of those who didn’t get a GED. Still, there is overwhelming data that shows the disparities in salaries between those with high school degrees and those without. The Rutgers study does suggest that fewer GEDs means fewer qualified workers, and it lets you connect the dots in terms of what that means.

“The GED is the basic credential for almost every job, for admission to the military, for admission to the trades and to apprenticeships, so there are a lot of people who really need this test if they didn’t graduate high school,” Zundl noted.

Test administrators say you can’t just look at the raw data. They say the tougher tests produce better prepared graduates and that better prepared grads make better workers. The numbers could be affected by rising graduation rates, they add.  All possible, says Zundl, who adds, “We would like our standards to align with what the standard is in other states. A GED in one state should be equivalent to a GED in another state.”

The study recommends the state expand the number of testing locations, make scholarships available for low-income residents who might have a tough time affording the test fee and lower the passing score so that New Jersey matches the standard in 48 other states.