Transcript

Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.

Woman: I got my GED.
Man 1: So that I could better myself.

Seven-hundred-thousand people take the GED test each year. Most are high school dropouts looking for a second chance. Some hope the GED will lead to a better job.

Woman:The more that I accomplish, the more that I want to accomplish.

But critics say the GED is of little value to most people who get one.

Lois Quinn: It's just selling a huge portion of the population short.

Over the coming hour we'll look at how the GED became the last resort for school dropouts, and whether it's worth it. "Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED." From American RadioWorks. First, this news.

Part One

[Sound of graduation music in an auditorium]

Marcel Kielkucki: Good evening and welcome to the 47th annual Kirkwood Community College high school graduation ceremony...

Smith:We're at a hockey arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Emily Hanford: Wood panels cover the ice rink where rows of chairs are set up for the graduates. Families and friends are looking down from the bleachers.

Smith: There's a big stage festooned with ferns and lilies. The graduation caps and gowns are bright blue. The tassels: blue and white.

Kielkucki: Tonight we honor 536 students who have graduated in the last year, earning their GED diploma; Kirkwood adult high school diploma; or received a local school district diploma while working with our instructors and staff at one of Kirkwood's learning centers.

Smith: Most of tonight's graduates are adults. A lot of them have kids. A few are old enough to have grandkids.

Hanford: Most of them quit school years ago, but then came to realize they needed a better job or more education. So they went through a program at Kirkwood Community College to get a high school credential.

Kielkucki:At this time it is my honor to introduce these graduates of our program...

Smith: Three of the grads were selected to give valedictory speeches. Not so much because they were model students, but because they were typical of their peers.

Man (at podium): I was 15 years old when I dropped out of school. Back then I was getting along with the wrong crowd...
Woman 1 (at podium): I don't come from a family with high academic achievers.
Man (at podium): Then one day I stopped going to school.
Woman 1 (at podium): I dropped out to support and help take care of my little sister.
Man (at podium): I would just stay home and do nothing.
Woman 2 (at podium):Thirteen years ago I dropped out of high school. I was, senior year, third trimester. I liked to goof around. And I found out I was pregnant.
Woman 1 (at podium): I didn't get my GED until I was 25. But I made that a goal and completed it.
Man 1 (at podium): I knew I had to get a high school diploma so that I could better myself.
Woman 1 (at podium): I want to show to my son that no matter where you come from you can work hard to succeed and be who you want to be.
Woman 2 (at podium): I got my GED. And I posted it all over Facebook. [Laughs]

[Applause]

["Pomp and Circumstance" plays in arena]

Hanford: The GED is supposed to be the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Smith: But all you have to do is take a test.

Hanford: The GED is actually a series of tests designed to measure what you know - your level of General Educational Development. That's what GED stands for: General Educational Development.

Smith: These graduates in Iowa are among the more than 700,000 people who take the GED each year. Most people who study for the test spend 40 hours or less preparing. But for some folks, passing the GED is a real struggle.

Mick Starcevich: You were persistent. That is what leads to success.

Hanford: This is the president of Kirkwood Community College, Mick Starcevich.

Starcevich: What you did wasn't easy. If it was, more of the people who started with you would be with us tonight.

Smith: About 40 percent of people who take the GED test don't pass.

Hanford: Still, critics say the test is too easy. They say a GED is not nearly as useful as advertised. And it was never meant to be a substitute for a high school diploma.

Smith: It just sort of happened that way.

[Music]

Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: "Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED." I'm Stephen Smith.

Hanford: And I'm Emily Hanford. Over the coming hour, we'll explore how the GED became the fallback option for millions of high school dropouts. We'll examine the value of the GED and what critics say is wrong with it. We'll also explain how the GED may be getting harder, and what that could mean for people who are already falling behind in our rapidly changing economy.

Smith: In reporting this story, we got to know dozens of GED students and graduates. Emily went to Washington, D.C., which has the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation. I went to Iowa, which is the birthplace of the GED. Our story starts in a well maintained, two-story colonial out in the corn and soybean fields north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

[Sound of Chad Phelps noodling with synthesizer music]

I met Chad Phelps at his grandparent's house. That's where he lives, for now and where he makes music - composing hip-hop beats on his computer.

Chad Phelps: I won't even start off with drums. I'll simply start off with [taps some music]. And then I'll figure out a snare or a clap to put in, like [taps some more notes]. It takes time to find the right instrument. It's like – it's like matching clothes. You don't want to put an orange shirt on with blue pants. It'll just throw it off.

Chad is a compact, wiry fellow with a reddish-brown beard trimmed short. He's got elaborate tattoos covering his biceps and neck.

[Sound of Chad tapping more music on keyboard]

Phelps: Since I was 15 years old I loved doing music. I could sit here and spend ten to 12 hours to 14 to 16 hours straight, every day, you know? It's something I loved doing.

Something Chad hated doing as a teenager was going to school. Here's his mom, Cheryl Phelps.

Cheryl Phelps: Chad just, he had a lot of troubles growing up in school. Problems with kids at school...
Chad: Fighting...
Cheryl: Fighting a lot, yeah. He just said, "I'm not doing it anymore."

So Chad dropped out in the ninth grade.

Chad: Just me being young and dumb, you know. Wanting to have fun. And not even caring about school. I didn't, at that age, in my mind, I didn't think it was really that important.

Chad's mom warned her son that high school dropouts can generally look forward to a life of lousy, dead-end jobs.

Cheryl: Honestly, um, I didn't - I didn't think he was going to be very successful. [Chuckles] I mean I just thought he was going to be a kid that was going to have to struggle, every day, finding a job. Because of his education.

And that's basically what happened. Chad spent 10 years living with relatives, working at Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. He was making music and designing album covers on the side. Now he's 26, living with his grandparents, and fed up with drudge jobs.

Chad: That's why it's time to get this GED and go to college. So I can start doing better than what I'm doing now [laughs].

[Sound of keys jingling and door closing]

Proctor: I'd like to welcome everybody this afternoon to Kirkwood and GED testing...

Kirkwood Community College is the place where people in Cedar Rapids go to take the GED test. There are five subjects: reading, writing, social studies, science, and math. About a half-dozen people are taking the test this day: a few teenagers and one guy who looks to be about in his 30s. The proctor unlocks a metal case and pulls out the question books and answer sheets.

Proctor: During testing, do not look at anyone else's answer sheet. Do not talk. And do not make unnecessary noise.

The whole test takes about seven hours. The questions are multiple choice. Plus you have to write one short essay.

Marcel Kielkucki: What we find is that most students struggle on the GED in particular with math and writing.

That's Marcel Kielkucki. He runs the GED program at Kirkwood.

Kielkucki: The social studies, the science and the reading tests they usually can do pretty well on. Those three really are reading-based.

What he means is, you don't have to memorize facts about U.S. history or cellular biology or the planets in the solar system. If you understand the basic concepts of a subject, the test questions provide all the clues you need.

Kielkucki: So, if you're a good reader, you could read the content for understanding in the social studies and science tests. Be able to pick up the context clues from the material most likely and pass.

The GED has been around since 1942 and it's remained pretty much the same since then. The score required to pass it has been raised over the years. But critics say the test is still too easy - that it's at a ninth or 10th grade level.

Chad Phelps: To me what came easily was social studies, science and reading. I didn't really have to study for those.

This is Chad Phelps again. He spent about 12 weeks taking classes to prepare for the math and writing tests. And then it took him several tries to pass.

Phelps: Writing, language arts, uh, I think I took three times. And then the essay I think I had to take like four or five times. And then the math I took about three times. It was pretty smooth, I thought.

Now Chad is thinking about a future built around his music - maybe the entertainment business.

[Music]

You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED." I'm Stephen Smith.

Hanford: And I'm Emily Hanford. Many government institutions, many employers, many colleges and universities recognize the GED as the equivalent of a high school diploma. Today 12 percent of all high school credentials issued in the United States are GED certificates.

Smith: But, remember, the GED was never meant to be America's second chance diploma.

Newsreel 1: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the united press. Flash! Washington. The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor...

Newsreel 2: It's war! American lives lost. American property destroyed...

Newsreel 3: From Washington the recruiting office of the United States navy announces that all recruiting centers will be open at eight a.m. tomorrow...

Smith: During World War Two, Congress lowered the draft age from 21 to 18. Some kids were drafted right out of high school. Over the course of the war… about 16 million Americans served in uniform.

Don Kruse: I was drafted into the Signal Corps.

Hanford: Don Kruse of Minnesota was drafted at the end of his junior year of high school.

Kruse: I thought that maybe I could get into the Air Force and be a radio operator on an airplane. And that didn't happen.

Hanford: Instead, he learned to be a radio repairman on the ground. As the war was ending, Don began to think about going to college. He wanted to become an engineer. But he needed to finish high school first. And he was hardly alone.

Newsreel: [Fanfare] The Queen Elizabeth, the world's largest ocean liner, pulls into New York harbor. Aboard are all most 15,000 happy GIs. These are the guys who helped win it for us against the Nazis. And the entire nation welcomes them home.

A lot of returning World War Two vets did not have high school diplomas. Many GIs had gotten specialized training in the service. And many wanted to make use of education benefits in the newly passed G.I. Bill.

Film: Speaking of education, if he meets the necessary standards, he can go to high school. Or college. Public or private. Scores of educational courses are open, with tuition and living expenses paid.

H.D. Hoover: You couldn't send 21-year-olds that had been in Germany in the trenches, you're not going to send them back into a regular high school. It just, it just wasn't going to work.

Hanford: H.D. Hoover is a retired University of Iowa professor and an expert on standardized testing.

Hoover: The idea came along to say, "OK is there some way we can give these people some kind of credential to get them into university?"

Smith: What they came up with was the GED - a test just for veterans. Don Kruse took the test.

Kruse: I couldn't have gone to college without the GED.

Lois Quinn: The sentiment was that every person who served in the war should get a degree.

Hanford: This is Lois Quinn, an education researcher at the University of Wisconsin who studies the GED. She says from the beginning, the GED test was designed to be easy.

Quinn: What the test did, possibly, was to weed out people who were functionally illiterate.

Hanford: Passing most sections of the test required answering only one or two more questions correctly than if you filled in the answer sheet randomly.

[1950s music]

Smith: The GED was part of a larger push for standardized testing that took off during and after World War Two.

Film: Testing services are able to give you a lot of reliable help in picking the right vocation.

Smith: This film from the 1950s shows a high school student wondering whether to go to college to be an engineer. He takes a series of standardized intelligence tests. And then he sits down with a counselor.

Counselor (on film): Well your verbal aptitude was only about average. Your computational aptitude is well above average. Student: But that means I ought to take engineering, doesn't it?

Hanford: IQ tests, achievement tests, college entrance exams... Social scientists in mid-20th-century America unleashed the largest program of mental testing in history. H.D. Hoover, the Iowa expert on standardized testing, says all this testing was made possible by a technical innovation.

Hoover: What we now know as the optical scanner.

Smith: The optical scanner was developed by a brilliant education professor at the University of Iowa named E.F. Lindquist. Before the scanner, answer sheets had to be scored by hand.

Hoover: What the optical scanner did was immediately go from being able to score 200 an hour to ten to 20,000 an hour.

Smith: That meant you could test millions of people a year, at low cost. Lindquist and his colleagues created a variety of tests, including the prototype for the GED.

Hanford: Many education experts of the era held a deep belief that standardized tests could revolutionize how human performance was measured and managed, in school and on the job. William Reese is a historian of education.

William Reese: They were really quite convinced that there was a science of education; that learning could be measured; and that there would be tests to both examine as well as credential people whatever their place in society. The GED has to be seen as, you know, a part of that larger story about how testing became so fundamental to American life.

Smith: The GED began as a program just for veterans. But in 1947, New York became the first state to allow civilians to take the test. A quarter-century later, all 50 states were using the GED. It became the primary way for high school dropouts to get a credential.

[1960s music]

Hanford: Use of the GED accelerated in the 1960s, fueled in large part by the expansion of social welfare programs.

Film: This is the Los Pinos Jobs Corps camp. It's one of 86 camps under the Office of Economic Opportunity, continued in the Johnson administration by Sargent Shriver...

Smith: President Lyndon Johnson's ambitious War on Poverty emphasized the power of education to help people better their lives. The Job Corps was a program that helped troubled teens get a high school diploma or a GED while training them for work.

Film: There are 165 boys here. They were brought in under crash program by the government in an effort to get them off the street and into workshops and classrooms.

Hanford: Millions of Jobs Corpsmen - as they were called - went to the program's centers and camps.

Instructor (on film): The educational objective is to bring each corpsman to at least a 9th grade reading and math literacy level.

Smith: The Job Corps and a variety of other federal programs began promoting GED certification as a way to produce high school graduates.

Hanford: Prisons began encouraging inmates to take the GED. And dropouts could qualify for some government assistance programs by getting a GED.

Platoon Leader (on film): Give me that old Marine Corps spirit.
Group: give me that old Marine Corps spirit.
Leader: Give me that old Marine Corps spirit...

Hanford: But by the 1970s the nation's largest employer - the U.S. military - was beginning to lose faith in the GED.

Drill Instructor (on film): From now on the last word out of your mouth is sir. Do you understand?
Group: Sir, yes sir!
Instructor: I said the last word out of your mouth...

Smith: These recruits at a Marine training base in San Diego scramble to obey the orders of a demanding drill instructor. Inevitably, some of them will fail.

Hanford: What Department of Defense researchers began to notice is that people with GEDs were much more likely to quit or be thrown out than those with traditional high school diplomas.

Smith: At first, military leaders thought people with GEDs weren't smart enough for the increasingly complex and demanding world of the U.S. military.

Hanford: So they raised the test scores required of people with GEDs.

Smith: But they were still more likely to quit.

Hanford: That's when the military started to suspect there was something else going on. Janice Laurence is a professor at Temple University who studies the performance of GED holders in the military.

Janice Laurence: First thing you do in military after boot camp - which is about six weeks - is you go to a classroom. And you have homework. And you have to listen to a teacher. And you have to interact with your peers.

Smith: Laurence says these are the things many people with GEDs had trouble with in high school.

Laurence: And so a high school diploma, if we figure out, what the heck does that mean? It means we have some smarts and we know some stuff. But beyond that it also means these whole behavioral ways of acting and functioning in society that the GED test doesn't take into consideration at all.

Smith: So, from the military's point of view, the GED didn't say much about a person's willingness to work hard, to show up and follow the rules.

Hanford: At about the same time the military was starting to figure out there was something wrong with the GED, an economist got really interested in the GED, too.

James Heckman: I'm James Heckman.

Hanford: James Heckman is an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

Heckman: I'd never heard of the GED. I mean I guess I'd heard about it but I knew nothing about it.

Smith: It was the late 1980s. Heckman was researching the effectiveness of government job training and he went to Corpus Christi, Texas to check out one of the training programs. He ended up in a GED prep class at a community college.

Heckman: So I asked the people, I said, "Well, what's going on with this?" They said, "Oh, in about six weeks - 2 months maybe - we're able to take ... people who had basically a 6th grade education and we could convert them into high school graduates." So you could get six years of education in about six weeks. Something like that. I said, "This is amazing!" I was actually really enthusiastic. I said, "What a great thing. You save all this money in schools and so forth."

Hanford: Heckman was intrigued. So he started going through a big government data set that included people who had passed the GED and people who didn't have a high school credential.

Heckman: And I just asked the simple question: Did the GEDs do better than dropouts?

Hanford: And the answer was no. Passing the GED test does not, on average, help people do better in the labor market. In fact, people with GEDs do about the same as those who have no high school credential at all.

Smith: And folks with GEDs don't tend to do well in college, either. This is Tim Kautz, a researcher at the University of Chicago who works with James Heckman.

Tim Kautz: Many students earn a GED because they think it'll allow them to graduate from college. And about 40 percent of students actually enroll in a college program - a two- or four-year college. And that sounds great.

Smith: Until you look at what happens to them in college. Fewer than half end up completing more than a year. Only 5 to 9 percent earn an associate's degree. About 4 percent earn a bachelor's degree. Kautz says the GED deceives people into believing they're prepared for college, or for work, when they're not.

Hanford: The problem, according to Kautz and Heckman, is that the GED doesn't measure all the skills that matter when it comes to things like staying employed or being successful in the military or in college. In other words, we use the GED to tell us people have the skills to do certain things, but the GED isn't a measure of all the skills they need.

Heckman: We've reified this test to be a measure of something that it's actually not.

Smith: So let's pause here for a moment and talk about what the GED does measure. It's a measure of cognitive skills - put simply, the ability to process information, the ability to reason, to remember and learn -"smarts," if you will. That's what the test was designed to assess from the beginning.

Hanford: But we all know it takes more than smarts to be successful. It also takes things like hard work and persistence and getting along with people. Those are difficult to measure.

Smith: It is not difficult to measure cognitive skills though, thanks to people like E.F. Lindquist of Iowa.

Hanford: It's hard to overestimate just how much our society relies on measures of cognitive skill. Just think of all the standardized testing that goes on in today's public schools.

Smith: As a nation we put a lot of faith in the idea that cognitive skills are really important. Here's James Heckman again.

Heckman: We're a test-based society. We think we know what it takes to succeed. A high I.Q. is the be-all and end-all, and it's not.

[Music]

Hanford: What Heckman has concluded is that people who stay in high school for four years and get a diploma have a set of skills that people who drop out don't tend to have. Sometimes he calls these "non-cognitive" skills. Other times he refers to them as "character."

Smith: Heckman has a line in one of his papers that says: "GED recipients are 'wise guys' who lack the ability to think ahead, persist in tasks or adapt to their environments."

Hanford: It's a pretty harsh assessment. But it's important to remember that Heckman is looking at huge data sets and making his conclusions based on averages. He's not saying all GED recipients are wise guys who lack character.

Smith: People drop out of high school for lots of different reasons. They have family problems, they go to bad schools - it's not just lack of motivation or bad behavior.

Hanford: But the lesson from Heckman's work is that cognitive skills are not enough to make it in life. What someone proves by passing the GED is that they have a certain level of "smarts" - they don't necessarily have the other skills they need to succeed. Here's how one of Heckman's graduate students, John Eric Humphries, describes the problem.

John Eric Humphries: The goal of education, part of it is, that you are certifying a full set of skills. And the GED is just an interesting case because it's not the full set.

[Music]

Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED." Coming up, we visit the nation's capital and meet people who dropped out of school long ago and now need a GED to get a job.

Johnson: I been praying. I've been getting on my knees and saying, "God, please give me a sharp mind to pass this test, almighty God." And he will do it. He's going to come through for me.

Hanford: For more on this program, you can visit our web site, Americanradioworks.org. We have links to research about the GED as well as graphs and charts that show how the GED has grown over time. You can also give the GED a try - see how well you'd do on the test. That's americanradioworks.org, where you can also sign up for our weekly education podcast.

Smith: Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. "Second Chance Diploma" returns in moment from APM, American Public Media.

Part Two

Emily Hanford: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Second Chance Diploma: examining the GED. I'm Emily Hanford.

Stephen Smith: And I'm Stephen Smith.

Sean McAtee: On your registration card it says GED. So you just have to come up with that $25.
Dan Buchanan: Oh is that it?
McAtee: That's it.
Buchanan: Oh. Ok...

Smith: We're back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at the high school completion program run by Kirkwood Community College. It's in the basement of a downtown office building. Students of all ages are drifting in and out. Sean McAtee is at the front desk getting a young man Dan Buchanan registered.

McAtee: So do you want to get started today?
Buchanan: Yeah, I've got a little bit of time to get started...

First-time clients like Dan take tests that show where they are academically. McAtee looks at the results and at the client's school transcript to figure out the best approach: taking a few final high school classes and getting a traditional diploma, or going instead for a GED.

McAtee: You know, we've had people say they dropped out their last semester of high school. A couple weeks before the year ended. And if they don't need a lot of credits, then the high school diploma might just work better for them.

But most students end up choosing the GED. That's what Ricky McSpadden did. I caught up with him at a city park in Cedar Rapids.

[Sounds of a city park]

We sat at a picnic table under a tree.

Ricky McSpadden: I just got done working at Starbucks. Just got off my shift and it's 3:24. [Laughs] I got off a little bit early. So... [laughs]

Ricky is 17, slender and a bit fidgety. He works two jobs: slinging coffee at Starbucks and waiting tables at an Italian place. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year when life got chaotic.

McSpadden: Because I was moving from house to house. Because I was living with my dad at first. Then I moved with my mom and then I was living with my grandma. And then I moved back with my mom. And so it was like really frustrating. And I just like, my grades went downhill from there. And I don't think anybody really realized that that like was affecting me. And I, I don't know, it was a lot of stress, really.

Ricky says the GED was in the back of his mind when he quit going to school.

McSpadden: I knew there was always a chance to get a GED if I needed to because I had friends who were older and dropped out of school and got their GED.

John Eric Humphries: If you provide people a middle option, some people will take it.

Hanford: John Eric Humphries is a researcher who studies the GED. He's concerned that too many young people take the test instead of finishing high school. Humphries points to a government survey showing nearly half of GED recipients say they dropped out, in part, because they thought getting a GED would be easier. Humphries questions whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to take the GED test at all.

Humphries: They can't vote. They can't drink. They can't smoke. They can't enlist. But they can make a very large life choice. And it requires their parents' input too but these are also people that are more commonly from single parent families, more commonly from struggling families. So it's unclear as a society that we want to allow someone to choose that middle route at such a young age.

Smith: Some states don't allow people under 18 to take the test. But others actually offer GED preparation classes in certain high schools. These programs target students at risk of dropping out and offer them the GED instead. Humphries thinks this is a bad idea.

Humphries: So while it's supposed to be a second chance and might be really helping some people, it is introducing and adding a layer of legitimacy to the credential directly to this kind of 16, 17 crowd that when we're talking about it inducing students to drop out... Heckman: So it's producing the very problem the GED was intended to solve, it's creating a high school dropout problem.

Hanford: That was James Heckman who came in at the end there. He's the University of Chicago economist who's been studying the GED for decades. His research shows the GED actually encourages some students to quit school.

Smith: The organization that runs the GED rejects this research. The GED Testing Service is a partnership between a non-profit that's been running the GED from the beginning, and the for-profit publishing company Pearson. They merged in 2011.

Hanford: C.T. Turner is director of public affairs for the GED Testing Service. He says high school dropouts need a second chance, and the GED is the best way to give them that chance.

C.T. Turner: Sixty-three percent of jobs next year are going to require some education or training beyond high school. That number is expected to be 75 percent by 2020 and maybe higher. A high-school credential or a GED credential or a traditional high school diploma, any of those, are essential doors that you have to go through in order to get to the next step for most folks.

Smith: We asked Turner about the research suggesting many people with GEDs lack so-called non-cognitive skills, like persistence and getting along with people. He responded by saying those skills are hard to measure.

Turner: Right now there's no test that adequately measures some of those softer skills, persistence, some of those other things.

Hanford: Turner says the GED is the most reliable and cost-effective way to give the 39 million Americans who don't have a high school credential a realistic shot at getting one.

Smith: But there are lots of folks who can't pass the GED test. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people fail.

Hanford: There's lots of research about the people who pass the GED test. That's the group economist James Heckman is focused on - guys like Chad Phelps, the musician in Cedar Rapids who was able to get his GED relatively easily.

Smith: But some people try for years to pass the GED. There's not much research about this group.

Hanford: I met some of these folks at an adult education school in Washington, D.C. called Academy of Hope.

Instructor: All right, good morning everybody.
Group: Good morning...
Instructor: So glad everyone's here this morning. Orientation...

This is an orientation for new students. It's November of 2012.

Larry Jackson: My name is Larry Jackson and I'm here to get my GED and to better myself.
Tracy Smith: My name is Tracy Smith. I'm here to get my GED. After I get my GED I want to go to college.
Alejandra Johnson: Good morning everyone, my name is Alejandra Johnson and I been wanting to do this for a long time.


Some students at this orientation look eager to begin. They've got backpacks over their shoulders or notebooks in their hands. Others appear less certain, standing back against the wall. About a third of the students at Academy of Hope are in their 40s, 50s or 60s. The education director, Daquanna Harrison, says many of them used to be able to get pretty good jobs.

Daquanna Harrison: And they were getting paid $15, $16, $17 an hour, and then the economic system crashed. And you know, everyone had a reason to, needed a reason to get rid of them and they looked and said, "Oh, no high school diploma? Outta here."

She's talking about the recent recession. It hit D.C.'s low-skilled workers hard.

Charles Gibson: And every time I be looking in the Want Ad section of the newspaper and I see: "Must have a high school diploma or a GED."

Charles Gibson is a large man with a shy smile. He used to work as a janitor and a security guard but says he can't get those kinds of jobs anymore.

Gibson: I got tired of seeing that in the paper. And I said, "Yeah man," man said, "Yeah you got experience. But you ain't got no GED. High school diploma or GED." I heard that so many times, I say, "The heck with that. I'm going back to get it."

Charles dropped out of school in 10th grade. That was 1975. Almost all the students here completed at least some high school. But only 8 percent of them read and do math at a high school level. Academy of Hope's mission is not just to help people like Charles pass a test, but to help them learn what they didn't learn in school.

Science Instructor: OK, so you have two sheets of paper out. That first one we worked on yesterday, the scientific method. We're going to quickly review the steps of the scientific method...

There is science class, and also social studies…

Social Studies Instructor: All right guys, uh, we're going to be talking about ancient civilizations today...

And of course there's math.

Math Instructor: OK, well, in this session we will go over decimals...

One of the people in this math class is Carlita Johnson. She's sitting at the back of the room.

Carlita Johnson: I dropped out in the 10th grade and during my time in school I always felt, looked at myself as to be like a very kind of, slow learner in a lot of studies that I had.

She says learning math was hard then, and it's even harder now that she's 50. Carlita's goal is to go to college and become a respiratory therapist. She started at Academy of Hope in the lowest-level math class. That was eight months ago. She just moved up a level.

Johnson: I'm in decimals, finally! [Laughs] I'm in decimals finally. And it's quite an experience. Because I'm learning again? I'm learning things that I never thought that I could learn.

Instructor: Yeah, One point thirty six.
Johnson: One point thirty six. I'm getting it! [Laughs]
Instructor: OK, good.
Johnson: Amen...

Another student in this math class is Jean Griggs. She's sitting in front, with a puzzled look on her face. Math is hard for her, too. She went to D.C. public schools in the 1960s and '70s and says a lot of teachers didn't care if students learned anything.

Jean Griggs: They never were in the classroom. They always went out. And then, like maybe five minutes before the bell rang, here they come and they say, "You finished with your papers?"
Hanford [at Academy of Hope]: You mean your teachers would give you a paper and leave the class and then come back at the end?
Griggs: About five minutes before the bell rang.

There was no one to help her. By high school Jean was really struggling, until she found Maria, another student who would sit next to Jean and help her with the work. Maria kept Jean going for a while. Then suddenly, towards the end of tenth grade, Maria was gone.

Griggs: I looked for her, and there was no Maria. And I knew I was failing.

Jean stopped going to school. When she started taking classes at Academy of Hope, she was below a 5th grade level. That was more than a decade ago. She's been coming here off and on ever since.

Griggs: And I hate the word "can't" because I keep on trying. I keep trying and trying and trying and it doesn't seem like I'm catching it.

Meghan Snyder [in class]: So, let's read through this together. So why don't you like read this out loud.
Griggs: OK, um, Celia works for a shipping company. She figures out how many...

On Fridays there are no classes at Academy of Hope, but tutoring is available. Jean is almost always here. Today she's getting help with word problems from one of the teachers, Meghan Snyder.

Snyder: So, here we're doing - this looks really confusing but it's not that bad. So volume is length times width times height. So...

Jean and Meghan are sitting together at a small table in the common area. There's a message board against the wall that displays an inspirational quote each day. Today's quote: "Happiness comes only when we push our brains and our hearts to the farthest reaches of which we are capable." Jean has written it down next to the word problems she's working on with Meghan.

Snyder: No, cubic feet is our unit.
Griggs: Oh, OK.
Snyder: 'Cause we're talking about a cube, right?
Griggs: [Sighs]
Snyder: I know. It's exhausting, right?

For years Jean did OK without a GED. She was an assistant teacher at a government day care center. But in 2011 she lost her job. It was part of a change in childcare licensing requirements. All teachers must have a high school credential now. Jean doesn't understand why.

Griggs: I mean I've been working for kids for almost 17 years! I know how to take care of infants. I know how to change, I know how to do CPR, blah, blah, blah, whatever.

Jean's been on unemployment but it's going to run out soon. She says she applies for jobs all the time, but everyone says the same thing: "Come back when you have your GED." She's beginning to wonder if she'll ever get one.

Ron Harris: Thank you, thank you. Good afternoon everyone. My name is Ron Harris, I'm from One D.C. I'm here to talk about jobs.

Every Wednesday Academy of Hope invites guest speakers to talk during lunch. Ron Harris is from a community group that helps low-wage workers. He's here to talk about a huge new Marriott hotel opening in Washington in May of 2014 - 18 months from now.

Harris: You say, "Oh, May of 2014, why he talking about jobs in 2014? I need a job now!" Right?
Audience: Right. Uh-huh.
Harris: But what I'm doing now, is I'm coming out giving folks a head-up, right, you know that there's an opportunity coming, right, so what do I have to do to get myself, prepare myself for this opportunity?

Marriott has promised to set aside a few hundred jobs for D.C. residents. Recruitment and training are supposed to start in the spring. A student asks if a GED is required.

Harris: Marriott says it's not mandatory. I talked to a guy who manages a hotel, he said they going to tell you it's not mandatory, but if you don't have it, they're not going to hire you.

We asked Marriott for an interview, but the company declined.

Marja Hilfiker: Yeah, I just wonder whether it would be possible to push for some of the jobs not to require a GED? Because many people don't realize how hard the GED test is.

This is Marja Hilfiker who helped found Academy of Hope in 1985. She's asking a question after Harris's presentation.

Hilfiker: I know lots of people who are excellent workers, and show up every single day. And meeting the GED requirements is a long stretch for them. But they should be able to make a living.

Harris nods in agreement but says there's not much he can do. After the meeting I ask him: What opportunities are there for people in D.C. who don't have a high school credential?

Harris: None, none, none.

The only choice for students here is to keep trying to pass the test. Alejandra Johnson says she'd really like to get one of the Marriott jobs.

Alejandra Johnson: [Sighs] I been praying. I been getting on my knees and saying, "God, please give me a sharp mind to pass this test, almighty God." And he will do it. He going to come through for me. I got a lot of studying to do when I get home. Pshh, a lot of studying. I gotta do it. And I'm gonna do it.

[Music]

Hanford:You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, "Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED." I'm Emily Hanford.

Smith: And I'm Stephen Smith. Soon it may be more difficult for students like Alejandra to pass the GED. The test is being revised. C.T. Turner of the GED Testing Service says it will be harder.

Turner: This is about what is the workforce demanding and what does an adult need to really be prepared and have a fighting shot at getting in one of those jobs that's going to support themselves and their families.

Smith: The GED has actually been updated four times since it was first introduced in the 1940s but this may be the biggest change yet. In the past, you got a number two pencil and a bubble sheet.

Hanford: No more bubble sheets with the new GED. Everyone takes the test on computer. C.T. Turner says the new test requires higher-level thinking. He described the type of question in the new social studies section.

Turner: So let's say they looked at JFK's inaugural speech and they gave an excerpt and there was a question that said, "Did he mean this when he said X, Y, Z? Explain in a paragraph." So people are going to have to think critically and then they're going to have to actually write about it.

[Music]

Smith: There are new, more rigorous tests coming to America's K through 12 public schools as well.

Hanford: That's one of the reasons the GED is changing. The thinking is: if high school is going to be harder, the GED should be too.

Smith: But we were talking earlier about the importance of things like persistence and the ability to get along with people - so-called non-cognitive skills. The new GED, like the old one, doesn't measure those skills.

Hanford: The GED will continue to be a test of cognitive ability. That doesn't mean it doesn't take hard work for some people to pass it. And now it will likely take even more work.

Smith: There are other options besides the GED. If you have just a few credits left you can go back to an adult high school and finish what you missed.

Hanford: Another option is something called the National External Diploma Program, or NEDP. It's what's called a competency-based program. Students demonstrate their skills and abilities through projects and writing assignments.

Smith: It's really different than sitting down for a seven-hour test.

Hanford: The NEDP is much smaller than the GED. Only about 45-hundred people are in the program in a given year. And it's offered in just six states, plus D.C. - so it is one of the options for students I met at Academy of Hope. In fact, when student Jean Griggs met with her advisor in the spring of 2013, the advisor suggested the NEDP. I went with Jean to the meeting.

Elizabeth Winn Bowman [at Academy of Hope]: Hi guys.
Griggs: Hey, how are you?
Bowman: Good, how are you?

Jean's advisor is Elizabeth Winn Bowman. She asks Jean how things are going.

Griggs: Everything's going pretty good.

Lots of things have been going well for Jean since I first met her six months ago. She won an essay contest and an award for achievement in science. But she's still testing at a fifth-grade level in math. Before she takes a GED practice test she's supposed to get to a 10th-grade level. Her advisor Elizabeth tells her she might want to consider the NEDP instead.

Bowman: The way I picture it is, think of a mountain. Right?
Griggs: Uh-huh.
Bowman: You gotta climb from here to the top of that mountain. One path is this way, and one path is this way.

For the NEDP, you work one-on-one with an assessor who gives you a series of assignments - like making a household budget or going to a play and writing about it. You complete the assignments over several weeks, months or even years. You have to work on them until you get a perfect score. It sounds like it might be a good option for Jean - she's already demonstrated she's willing to work hard. But here's the kicker: to be eligible for the NEDP, Jean still has to bring her math scores up by about five grade levels. She tells Elizabeth she's not sure she can do that.

Griggs: It's me. I learn different. And - [muffled] don't want to talk about this.
Bowman: Say it again?
Griggs: I just don't like talking about it.
Bowman: Yeah.
Griggs: I just want something to happen.
Bowman: Yeah, OK.

Elizabeth suggests Jean take another math test - see if she's made any progress on her grade level in the past couple of months. Jean leaves the meeting with a headache.

[Music]

Hilfiker [at Academy of Hope]: I think we are ready to start. May I have your attention please everybody?

Students at Academy of Hope have been waiting to hear when recruiting will start for the new Marriott downtown. Today Ron Harris from the community group One D.C. returns to give an update.

Harris: Since November and especially in the last two weeks things have been moving real fast. Right, you know? So I have a lot more information.

Recruiting still hasn't begun but there are details about the jobs and how much they'll pay. Harris reads from a list.

Harris: OK, uh, gift shop, $19.90 an hour.
Woman: Ooh!
Harris: Bell person $16.20 an hour. Valet parking $13.95 an hour...

Harris says it's not clear if a GED will be necessary. But he strongly recommends getting one. A student asks: "Why do you need to know math to park cars?" Harris plays devil's advocate. He asks how she would determine who's qualified if she were doing the hiring.

Female Student: I mean I would give a person a chance. If you don't give a person a chance…
Harris: So how do we choose which person in this room to give a chance to? How do I choose that?
Female student: How do you choose it?
Harris: How do Marriott choose it?
Female student: You choose the best qualification of the person. But the way they doing it now, you have to have your high school diploma or GED.
Man: That's just the way it is now.
Female student: I mean I know that things have changed. I mean I worked in the government 37 years without my high school diploma. I know my experience. I mean I may not have a high school diploma but I can do the work. I never missed a day from work.
Harris: And you said key words here. Things have changed. They got the upper hand. They can pick and choose...
Female student: Who they want.
Harris: Right, right.

When the meeting is over, Harris sends around a clipboard so students interested in applying for Marriott jobs can get more information. Almost everyone signs up.

[Music]

Smith: This is "Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED," a documentary from American RadioWorks. I'm Stephen Smith.

Hanford: And I'm Emily Hanford.

Smith: The prospects seem pretty bleak for the students at Academy of Hope.

Hanford: Ron Harris told me even students who pass the GED face a tough job market because employers prefer people with traditional high school diplomas. He says they're not going to admit it publicly, but employers look at people with GEDs as kind of tainted. They didn't make it through high school so there must be something wrong.

Smith: There's not necessarily something wrong, though. Some people went to bad schools. They didn't get a chance to learn much.

Hanford: And some people are really hard workers, but they may never pass the GED test, no matter how hard they try.

[Music]

Smith: When the GED was created back in the 1940s a lot of people believed that cognitive skills - smarts, IQ - these were the most important skills when it came to success in school and in work.

Hanford: Though interestingly, even E.F. Lindquist - the father of the GED - acknowledged that other skills matter too: interpersonal skills, hard work.

Smith: Cognitive skills could be measured, though, so that's what stuck.

Hanford: But lots of research in psychology and economics now shows that for many important life outcomes, including how well people do in school and in the labor market, non-cognitive skills are just as important or even more important than cognitive skills.

Smith: The problem with the GED - according to economist James Heckman and other researchers - is this: folks who pass the test may know many of the things a high school student knows, but they may not have learned some of the lessons that getting through four years of high school teaches: how to keep going to class; doing homework; and getting along with teachers and peers. And the GED doesn't, on average, help them gain these skills. The GED isn't much more than a piece of paper for them.

Hanford: And for people who can't pass the test, the GED is a big barrier - preventing many of them from even getting a shot at showing employers that they're good workers.

Smith: This raises the question of whether there's any value in trying for months or years to pass the test.

[Music]

Hanford: There's not a clear answer to this question. Some researchers say if the process of studying for the GED results in learning skills you didn't have before it may help you in the labor market - provided you can eventually pass the test.

Smith: But even if you can't pass the test, there may be value in going back to school.

Hanford: It's not just about getting a credential for many of the students I met at Academy of Hope. It's about learning what they didn't learn in school. Student Carlita Johnson says she feels like a more educated person now.

Johnson: And I feel like I'm becoming more of a, um, conversationalist. To be able to adjust and adopt in conversations with all classes of people. And that's a very comforting and overwhelming feeling. Cause I didn't once used to feel like that. Now, I can generate my own conversation! [Giggles]

Hanford: Carlita has made a lot of progress since she started at Academy of Hope fifteen months ago. Her advisor tells her she's ready to take a GED practice test. But Carlita is considering the National External Diploma Program instead. She thinks doing projects will give her more of a sense of accomplishment than taking a test.

Johnson: The more that I accomplish, the more that I want to accomplish. And the more, uh, determined and confident that it makes me that I can accomplish.

Carlita says this is the first time in her life she's felt that if she worked really hard at something, she could succeed.

Johnson: It's a total new feeling. And it makes me feel like the sky is the limit now. You know, like I can do and be and accomplish anything that I set my mind into doing. Just like other people in society.

[Music]

Hanford: Feeling successful is really important.

Smith: According to the research on learning and motivation, we all need little successes along the way to stick with big goals.

Hanford: Data show people who try the National External Diploma Program are more likely to get a high school credential than people who try the GED. A researcher who's studied the NEDP says it could be that completing projects provides more of those little successes than taking a big test that you either pass or fail.

Smith: There's no research, though, to say whether the NEDP is a more valuable credential in the job market - or if people who complete the NEDP are more successful in college.

[Sound of graduation announcer]

Smith: We're back in Cedar Rapids and it's graduation day for Chad Phelps.

Voice: Chad Phelps...
Voices: Yeah Chad!

Chad grins as he takes the stage to get his GED certificate. His grandfather, Doug Nightingale, watches from the bleachers. Doug is proud - and he's a little bit worried.

Doug Nightingale: It ain't like it used to be.

Doug dropped out of high school but had a long, stable career as a truck driver for a big dairy company.

Nightingale: I think it's harder for the kids today than it was for us. There's so much stress in the workplaces today. And there's no certainty that you're gonna be with that, whoever you're working for any more than five or ten years and then you're gonna be looking for another job.

Doug thinks his grandson is going to need a college degree. That is Chad's plan. He wants to go to community college and study music production, so that 10 years from now he's someplace new, working at something better than a fast-food joint.

Phelps: Maybe out in California doing like maybe music stuff. Like I want to get into audio engineering, within movie, films or music industry. Anything like that.

The GED may be exactly what Chad needs to move on to better things.

Hanford: But getting through high school is more valuable preparation for life than taking a test, according to many experts.

Smith: The ideal solution to the nation's dropout problem is to get students to finish high school.

Hanford: But there will always be kids who quit - and then there are the 39 million adults who have already dropped out.

Smith: So if the GED isn't helping most of them, should we get rid of the GED?

Hanford: We asked this question of all of the researchers we interviewed.

Smith: Not one of them was willing to say yes.

Hanford: Here's Lois Quinn from the University of Wisconsin.

Quinn: I've recommended my neighbor take the GED; I've recommended my friend's daughter take the GED. I recommend it to anybody because it's a piece of paper. But as an alternative to high school? It's just selling a huge portion of the population short.

Smith: Critics of the GED say it was never anyone's intention to sell dropouts short. And it's not clear what would be better. But researcher Tim Kautz suggests a place to start.

Kautz: I think the first thing to do is just have everybody at every level understand what the GED measures and doesn't measure. So, policymakers realize they shouldn't just evaluate programs based on the GED. Teachers realize that it's not quite equivalent to a high school degree, so they shouldn't encourage their students to get it instead of finishing high school. And students realize that it's not equivalent to a high school degree either.

Hanford: Researcher Janice Laurence says the GED holds on because, as a society, we need a solution to the problem of bad schools and kids who don't make it to graduation.

Laurence: It assuages our guilt if we say, yeah, people fall through the cracks and they don't get a diploma. Ah, but here's your consolation prize. You can have a GED, so it's just as good. So we give somebody this credential and we think that, OK, well we're done. There's more that goes into it than a piece of paper with loops and curls on it. It takes time. And it takes a lot more than just a test.

Smith: Janice Laurence says people who drop out of school don't just need a credential: they need new skills. She says it's time for the nation to stop leaning on the GED. The test might have been a solution for veterans returning from World War Two. But it's not a good solution today, she says, for the millions of Americans who need a second chance.

[Music]

Smith: You've been listening to "Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED." It was produced by Emily Hanford and me, Stephen Smith, with help from Laurie Stern. It was edited by Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorson, Manda Lillie, Hans Buetow, Peter Clowney, Samara Freemark, Frankie Barnhill and Harry Backlund. Special thanks to Kohnstamm Communications.

Hanford: You can dig deeper into the story of the GED at our web site, americanradioworks.org. We have photographs of the students you met in the program plus links to the research we've been talking about. That's americanradioworks.org. While you're there, let us know what you think of this program, and sign up for our weekly podcast. You can also find us on Facebook at American.Radioworks and follow us on Twitter at @AmRadioWorks.

Smith: Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. A note of disclosure: some of the research cited in this program was funded by foundations that support American RadioWorks. The foundations do not influence how we cover the issues. This is APM, American Public Media.

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