University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Employment and Training Institute

Brief Summary

Attempted Reform of the GED Credential in Wisconsin

by Lois M. Quinn, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, 1997


Since World War II the GED test has been embraced by every state in the union as the primary tool for credentialing persons who have not completed four years of high school. Most states continue to raise standards for secondary education without recommending changes in the GED credential available to persons who do not complete high school. Wisconsin is an exception. In the late 1980s based on data showing poor performance of GED holders in postsecondary education and comparisons of standards for high school graduation and GED attainment, Wisconsin raised the requirements for GED credentials and banned GED testing for most high school-age youth. This research report describes the attempted reform of the GED credential and discusses alternatives to GED instructional programs which have emerged in Wisconsin.

In 1984 State Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover contracted with the Employment and Training Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to study the GED and its use in Wisconsin. Based on the study findings and recommendations, Grover raised the minimum scores required for passing the GED test in Wisconsin and increased the age for test-takers to 18-1/2 years (or until a youth's high school classmates had graduated). The only exceptions were for 17-year-old youths who were incarcerated, had been formally waived from attending school for at least one year, or who were in a special program approved by the state superintendent. For adults, those persons passing the GED test but not meeting additional requirements would be granted a certificate of General Educational Development. In order to earn a high school equivalency diploma, persons would be required to document four "seat-time" accomplishments in addition to passing the GED test (including instruction in health, social studies, employability skills and career awareness).

To spur the development of adult high schools in Wisconsin, Superintendent Grover encouraged community college districts, universities, correctional institutions and community-based organizations to submit innovative programs of instruction, which if approved could issue state high school equivalency diplomas. The state superintendent also emphasized other routes available to secure a high school equivalency diploma, including attainment of 24 post-secondary semester credits. While these routes were encouraged for high school non-completers, most of the attention and debate on GED reform in Wisconsin focused on the issue of what passing scores would be allowed for the GED test.

The Wisconsin GED Norming Study

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction contracted with the American Council on Education to conduct the norming study of Wisconsin high school seniors. This study has provided a unique public look at the problems inherent in the GED norming process. A sample of 65 Wisconsin high schools was selected for the Spring 1987 Wisconsin norming study, but only 50 of these schools agreed to participate, and replacement schools were not drawn for those declining. In addition, although 1,112 students began the testing process, only 427 (38 percent) completed the entire GED test battery. Based on these test results, the American Council on Education reported that 81 percent of Wisconsin high school seniors could achieve a minimum score of 40 on each of the five subtests and a total score of at least 250. Then in March 1988 after Wisconsin had implemented the new standards, the American Council on Education notified the state that it had "made systematic errors in developing the conversion tables for all three forms of the U.S. English-language GED tests." According to the American Council on Education's revised calculations, Wisconsin's score requirements could be met by only 67 percent of Wisconsin seniors tested.

The American Council on Education conducted a second norming study for Wisconsin in 1993 using the same test instrument as in 1987. This study, which ACE maintained was more representative than its 1987 study, contacted 85 schools of which 39 actually participated. A total of 806 students began the testing, but only 657 (82 percent) finished the five-test battery. This survey reported that in 1993 only 52 percent of Wisconsin high school seniors could pass all five GED subtests at the minimum scores of 40 on each subtest and a total of 250 or more. The Council concluded that, "...the 1987 norm group may have been a biased sample that was not representative of the State of Wisconsin. However, this finding could also indicate that the performance of graduating high school seniors in Wisconsin has changed since 1987."

In addition to problems of external validity for the Wisconsin GED norming studies, discussions with schools suggest that motivation of the high school seniors also appeared to be a problem. During the norming process, the American Council on Education revealed its unusual procedure of eliminating all subtest scores which fell below the chance level, explaining, "When scoring the tests, all examinees who scored below the level expected by chance (i.e., the level expected by guessing) were eliminated from the analyses. This step was taken to remove potential deleterious effects resulting from students who may not have taken the examination seriously." Failure to "take the examination seriously" was confirmed by reports that some high school seniors resented missing regular classes during the two days of testing, complaints about the simple questions asked, and the failure of a number of students to complete the five-test battery. One school district noted that while the GED Testing Service only measured students' ability to write a general essay, the district requires its own high school graduates to demonstrate mastery of 57 specific writing competencies, including development of formal expository essays, editorials, book reviews, observation reports, poetry, monologues, personal narratives, character profiles, memoranda, job resumes and research reports.

Experience With the Higher GED Score Requirements

After implementation of Wisconsin's higher GED test score requirements and restriction of testing for school-age youth, the number of persons passing the GED test dropped from 8,468 in 1987 to 4,603 in 1988 and 2,660 in 1989. Then as students and instructors adjusted to the new score requirements, the number of GED credentials issued gradually increased to 4,725 in 1993. However, the total GED credentials issued were still at about half of the level before the test changes.

While the American Council on Education had predicted that if GED passing scores were raised many students "would simply remain longer in instructional programs in order to try to achieve the higher score levels," GED instructors were reporting that many adults were unwilling to commit more than three to six months time to GED instruction. Instructors found that it was possible to increase candidates' GED scores on the math subtest by emphasizing not only mastery of fractions, decimals and percentages, but also adding instruction in introductory high school algebra and geometry. However, three of the GED subtests rely primarily on reading ability rather than mastery of specific course content. Consequently, it proved difficult to develop instructional activities which would help raise test scores after students had been introduced to the basic skills associated with each test, that is, general familiarity with the subject area, interpretation of graphs and tables, and practice completing multiple choice tests based on reading passages. In social studies, for example, extra months spent learning the core concepts of U.S. history, American government, geography or economics would be unlikely to translate into a higher GED score since the social studies subtest does not require content knowledge of these subjects.

In 1994 after Grover left the State Superintendency, the newly elected Superintendent John Benson reduced the minimum passing scores on each GED subtest from 45 to 40 and lowered the total passing score requirement from 250 to 230. Benson encouraged all individuals who had failed the test in the past six years to return to their testing centers to see if they now qualified for a GED diploma under the lower passing scores. Once the lower passing scores were in place, the annual number of GED credentials issued in Wisconsin rose to 8,184 -- back to the level of the pre-reform era.

The policy to keep GED test instruction out of high school was also gradually rescinded. Initially, Grover allowed 17-year-olds to transfer into technical college GED instructional programs only if the programs offered the additional coursework in health, social studies, employability skills and career planning required for the GED equivalency diploma. In 1992 Grover began allowing 17-year-old students in high school contract programs to take four of their five GED subtests. These youth were then permitted to take their fifth GED subtest three weeks from the end of the semester when they could legally leave high school (the end of the semester after their eighteenth birthday) or three weeks from the date of their high school class's graduation. This procedure enabled these youth to secure GED equivalency "diplomas" at the same time their classmates were participating in four-year high school graduation ceremonies.

After Grover's predecessor John Benson reduced the minimum passing scores for the GED test in 1994, many seventeen-year-olds could once again move quickly through the GED testing process. In 1992 about 800 seventeen-year-olds took GED tests and in 1993 about 1,100 were tested. However, in 1995 after the GED passing score had been lowered, the number of seventeen-year-olds tested reached nearly 2,000. Some technical college districts now enroll 17- year-old youth in twelve to fifteen hours of instruction a week (compared to the 32 and 1/2 hours of instruction required for regular high school students) and several districts allow teens to leave school as soon as they pass their fourth GED subtest.

Development of Wisconsin Adult High Schools

At the time the GED reforms were initiated, only two technical college districts offered high schools for adults. Since 1932 Milwaukee has operated an adult high school which offers a full range of half credit Carnegie unit courses needed for high school completion. In a program which has been operating since 1968 Gateway Technical College offers coursework credits for 80 hours of instruction (rather than the Carnegie unit 180 hours of instruction) under a cooperative agreement with a local high school district which awards graduates a local "adult high school diploma."

After the Wisconsin GED test scores were raised, technical college districts began developing new adult high school programs to accommodate adults populations who, for whatever reasons, were unable to achieve the GED passing scores. These programs were often called "5.09 adult high school programs" after the section of the state administrative code authorizing their use. The Blackhawk Technical College, for example, identified competencies in the areas of mathematics, reading, science, social studies, English, health, civics, employability skills and career awareness. Unlike GED test instruction, this program had a clearly defined curriculum and focused on specific content areas. The college expanded other options available to at-risk teens and adults seeking a high school credential, offering six possible credentials: an external diploma program, the GED high school equivalency certificate, the GED high school equivalency diploma program, a high school diploma gained by completing credit units required by the local high school district, a high school equivalency diploma granted after the student completed 24 postsecondary semester credits, and the 5.09 adult high school diploma.

In Milwaukee the technical college assembled a team of local educators, community representatives, university faculty and school officials who created an adult competency-based high school diploma program. This program required students to complete a minimum of 44 learning activity packets in basic skills, study and learning techniques, and work life, social, employment and home life skills. The team developed a variety of evaluation methods to document competence in each area.

In all, thirteen of the sixteen technical college districts developed 5.09 adult high school programs for students who could not pass the GED tests, who had a primary language other than English, or who had learning difficulties or disabilities. The length of time required to complete 5.09 adult high school programs appears to vary by district and individual, but most programs required at least 1-1/2 to 2 years to complete. These fledgling programs offer a possible long- range alternative to GED test instruction for both young people and adults. However, with the provision of GED instruction for high school-age youth now re-institutionalized in the technical college system, more time-consuming and staff-intensive options will likely remain underutilized.

New Standards for High School Students

Since lowering the standards for securing a GED credential in Wisconsin, State Superintendent Benson has turned his attention to once again raising standards for the youth who remain in four- year Wisconsin high schools. In 1996 the State Department of Public Instruction with support from the U.S. Department of Education developed model standards for high school subject areas. In announcing these standards Superintendent Benson stated, "By developing rigorous academic standards, we are giving schools and students a clear picture of what the public expects them to accomplish." Benson identified over 640 competencies which he expects high school seniors, but not GED holders, to meet in the areas of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, foreign language, visual arts, music, dance, and theater. Thus, a half century after Wisconsin replaced its wartime high school diploma with the GED certificate, the GED remains firmly entrenched in Wisconsin schools and community colleges, largely untouched by the continuing public clamor for higher standards in high school.

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