As the recent Census figures remind us, a college degree is rapidly becoming the passport to a decent standard of living. This is true both nationwide and here in the District of Columbia.
In the District, 4.5% of adults over 25 with a bachelors degree or higher lived below the poverty line in 2009, as compared to 28.3% of their peers with less than a high school diploma.
Adults without a high school diploma earned, on average, $20,364 for the year. Adults with a college degree nearly three times as much. Even some college or an associate degree boosted earnings by an average of more than $16,000.
The passport to college is, of course, a high school diploma or the equivalent — mostly commonly a GED (General Education Development) credential.
So the District clearly needs to do something big to increase both the high school graduation rate and the pass rate for the GED tests.
According to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education, fewer than 55% of D.C. public high school students graduate on time — a lower percent than in all states but one.
The Alliance for Education Excellence says that independent researchers generally find higher dropout rates than states report. So it uses figures from the research arm of the nonprofit that publishes Education Week. These put the District’s on-time graduation rate at 49%.
No figure for those who graduate after more than four years. But we do have research suggesting that most students who are held back in their freshman year don’t graduate late. So I doubt a total graduation rate would give us a much rosier picture.
Whatever the true high school graduation figure, the GED certificate will remain a key to living-wage employment and the health of our local economy for an indefinitely long time.
We’ve got nearly 64,500 District residents over 18 without a high school diploma or the equivalent. With a GED, they’ve got a fair shot at better wages and that passport to at least some postsecondary education. Without it, they’re likely to fall further behind. And their children will be at higher risk of becoming high school dropouts too.
So the results of the latest reported round of GED tests are bad news indeed.
In 2009, the District had a lower pass rate than any state — just 53.5% of candidates for the certificate. In half the states, three-quarters or more of candidates passed. In all but seven of these, pass rates were over 80%.
The GED tests aren’t like the highly variable proficiency tests states administer under No Child Left Behind. Both the tests and the passing thresholds are standard nationwide. So we can’t explain the District’s dismal performance by the questions asked, the scoring methods or the minimum pass scores.
A recent New York Times editorial links passing rates to the kind of jobs states do in preparing prospective candidates. This certainly seems to be the case for Iowa, which tops the chart with a 98.1% pass rate.
So might the explanation for the District’s low pass rate lie in the basic education and test preparation programs available to residents who aspire to the GED credential?
Unlike most states, the District relies mainly on nonprofits and charter schools for adult education. There are no city-wide standards for their programs, even those that receive funding from the Office of the Superintendent of State Education.
So we can readily find out where GED candidates may get help in preparing, but not the curricula offered or the qualifications of the instructors. Doubtful, I think, that candidates could find out enough to make appropriate choices, though they can get some guidance if they call the Literacy Hotline.
Merrion says that many of the 30 programs listed as offering courses or tutoring expressly designed as GED preparation are short on staff and on the funds they’d need to hire experienced, well-trained staff — or to develop more. Recent cuts in local public funding for adult education have made matters worse.
However, the District requires candidates to pass a standardized pretest before they can take the regular five-test battery. According to the annual report by the American Council on Education’s GED Testing Service, jurisdictions that prescreen with the test generally have higher pass scores. Clearly not the case for the District.
So we’ve got a mystery here. And it’s one I think OSSE ought to get to the bottom of. Because, as the Times notes, the GED tests will soon get tougher.
“States,” it says, “will need to invest much more heavily in programs that prepare people for the G.E.D.” Seems this may well be true for the District as well.
If close to half its test-takers can’t pass the current version of the GED, how will a reasonably large percentage pass tests based on the more rigorous “common core” standards that the District, along with a large majority of states, has adopted?