University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee logo

1980s Research on the GED Credential and Its Use in Wisconsin

by John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, August 1986

In 1984 the Employment and Training Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee embarked on a two-year study of the GED (General Educational Development) Tests and its use in Wisconsin, at the request of State Superintendent Herbert J. Grover. The study explored the use of the GED credential by employers and post-secondary institutions in the state, the level of skills attained by GED holders, and the performance of GED holders in post-secondary education in the state. The long-term goal of the research is to insure that high school equivalency credentials issued in Wisconsin reflect the high school graduation standards of the state and deliver to adults who seek them an equivalency credential worthy of its name.

In Wisconsin several options are currently available to high school non-completers who want to earn a high school credential. Some adults return to their high school and complete the courses necessary for a high school diploma. Several VTAE districts offer adult high school diplomas. The Waukesha County Technical Institute also offers an External High School Diploma, which allows adults to complete a series of assessment exercises and demonstrate life skill competence. By far the vast majority of high school non-completers in Wisconsin earn a high school credential by passing the GED Tests. The tests are administered under requirements established by the GED Testing Service and the state Department of Public Instruction. In Wisconsin since 1960 over 100,000 persons have earned GED high school equivalency credentials.

Research Findings

  1. Since 1978 when an easier version of the GED Tests was first used, it has been possible for students with 6th grade reading levels to pass the GED Tests.
  2. In mid-1981 the GED Testing Service began allowing GED examinees additional time to complete two of the five GED Tests. No norming studies were conducted of graduating high school seniors to determine their performance under the new time limits and the GED Tests have been conducted without norming standards since that date.
  3. The U.S. Department of Defense, which originally developed the GED Tests for use by returning war veterans, no longer accepts the GED credential as equivalent to the high school diploma. The department's extensive research found that GED holders performed similarly to high school non-completers and had about double the attrition rates of high school graduates. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Labor uses the GED as a measure of positive termination for Job Training Partnership Act funding and the U.S. Department of Education uses the GED to measure success for a portion of Adult Basic Education dollars.
  4. The Employment and Training Institute examined the performance of all 2,896 GED holders who enrolled at the University of Wisconsin's thirteen four-year campuses from Fall 1979 through Fall 1984. While some GED holders were successful, as a group GED holders had staggering low retention rates. For example, only 4 percent of the 294 new freshmen enrolled in 1979-80 had earned college degrees by Spring 1985, and 84 percent had left school without graduating. Of the 1,982 GED holders in the study who left college before graduation, 35 percent had earned no credits, and 85 percent did not reach their sophomore year.
  5. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the performance of 538 GED holders was compared with that of 12,146 high school graduates enrolled from 1978-1982. In each measure of comparison (retention rates, mean grade point averages, mean number of credits earned), the GED holders as a group performed worse than high school graduates including those from the lowest 20 percent of their high school class. Only at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where only about 10 GED holders and 4,500 high school graduates are enrolled each fall, did GED holders perform better than high school graduates from the lower half of their high school class.
  6. The performance of 10,498 GED holders enrolled at the Milwaukee Area Technical College was compared to that of high school graduates and high school non-completers accepted into programs. GED holders attempting to graduate in Associate of Applied Science two-year degree programs had attrition rates similar to those of high school non-completers and usually well below the attrition rates for high school graduates., but worse than the rates for recent high school graduates. GED holders attempting to graduate in one-year diploma programs have attrition rates similar to high school dropouts and older high school graduates, but worse than the rates for recent high school graduates.
  7. A survey of 2,253 Wisconsin employers found that the GED credential is still well received by employers and considered by most to be equivalent to a high school diploma. Construction trades surveyed in the Milwaukee area indicate that they accept the GED holder for apprenticeship programs (except for electricians) but most also require applicants to demonstrate an 11th-12th grade reading level.

Study Recommendations

  1. Raise the minimum age for GED testing and award to persons 18-1/2 years old and over whose class has already graduated from high school.
  2. The majority of states, including Wisconsin, have taken actions leading to increased academic standards required for high school graduation. One result of the increase in the number of high school credits required for graduation may be higher dropout rates. To date, many schools have been permitted to use the GED for the population of students unlikely to graduate, substituting classes in how to pass the GED test for the regular course offerings of a high school curriculum. Increasing the age for GED testing to 18-1/2 would place Wisconsin's GED policy in line with those of our midwestern neighbors and encourage youth to stay in high school.

  3. Require GED applicants to demonstrate 10th grade reading and math levels prior to taking the GED test.

    Publication of the GED practice tests in 1978 in combination with the easier version of the GED tests has focused instruction in adult basic education (ABE) and high school GED programs on passing the test, often at minimum levels. Students with as low as a fifth grade reading level can pass the present GED test with the proper preparation in specific test taking techniques needed for the GED tests. The curriculum for many high school non-completers has been relegated to "test prep" rather than skill instruction in specific academic areas. This recommendation would require programs offering GED preparation to change their curricula to stress reading, writing and math to at least the 10.0 grade level and guarantee that GED certificate holders can read on a high school level.

  4. Until the GED tests are normed specifically with Wisconsin's graduating seniors, raise standards to pass the GED to a 45 minimum on each subtest and require a total score of 250.

    Presently, GED examinees in Wisconsin must pass five multiple choice tests (in reading, social studies, science, writing and math) with a 35 minimum score and a total score of 225. The GED Testing Service recommends that minimum score requirements be set at a level that can be passed by 70 percent of high school graduating seniors (and failed by 30 percent of seniors). Sixty-nine percent of Canadian seniors and 68 percent of Oregon's seniors passed the GED, using a passing score of 45 on each test. (In comparison, only 49 percent of the U.S. national norm group could pass the test with a 45 on each test.) It is likely that Wisconsin has more in common with the norming groups in Canada and Oregon that the U.S. national norm group. (In 1984 Wisconsin ranked first in ACT scores in the nation, Oregon ranked first in SAT scores.)

    Higher standards are also required on the current GED test because of the policy in 1981 of the GED Testing Service to increase the time allowed for the math tests by 50 percent and the writing test by 25 percent without renorming the GED for high school seniors (who were given shorter amounts of time).

  5. Require GED applicants to sign a "truth in testing" form prior to GED preparation and testing.

    The GED Testing Service prohibits GED holders from retesting to raise their GED scores (unless they fail the subtest). Students who study to pass the GED as preparation for post- secondary education should be aware that two University of Wisconsin campuses (Madison and Milwaukee), seven private colleges and two VTAE districts in Wisconsin require GED scores above passing for some or all of their programs. As many as two-thirds of Wisconsin GED completers indicate that they take the GED for purposes of going on for further education.

  6. Require GED applicants to go through career counseling prior to taking the GED.

    Staggering failure rates for GED students in the University of Wisconsin system suggest that more than a GED score needs to be considered when discussing education plans with high school non-completers. Course requirements, appropriate reading and math levels, and study habits are critical for success in post-secondary education.

    Students who drop out of high school and then shortly after attempt university level work have tremendous odds against them. Students who are considering the GED, especially at a younger age (17-19 years) ought to be informed of the importance of high school completion.

  7. Develop a "second chance" diploma program for high school non-completers.

    At-risk students and non-credentialed adults need an alternative to the GED such as the adult high school diploma offered in California, the external high school program at Waukesha County Technical Institute, and other programs which more closely model the basic skills, life skill competencies, and "staying power" features of high school. For at-risk youth, a "second chance" diploma option may help keep students in school who previously had no hope of graduation. For older non-completers, the "second chance" diploma could be a natural outgrowth of the GOAL program, ABE curriculum, and adult high school.

See Attempted Reform of the GED Credential in Wisconsin for a history of reform efforts resulting from the GED research summarized above.

To Top | Employment & Training Home Page

Page updated 2012
Employment and Training Institute
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Direct comments to: