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Event and Status Dropout Rates  
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Event Dropout Rates        
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Method of High School Completion The pressures placed on the education system to turn out increasingly larger numbers of qualified lifelong learners have generated increased interest in alternative methods of high school completion. At this point, most students pursuing an alternative to a regular diploma take the GED tests, with the goal of earning a high school equivalency credential.

From 1972 to 1999, approximately 21 million adults took the GED tests, and about 12 million, or 60 percent, received a high school equivalency credential based on these tests23. A minimum passing score is set nationally by the test administrator at the American Council on Education, and individual states set their own passing scores at or above the minimum requirement. In January of 1997, this minimum passing score was raised to a new standard requiring all GED graduates to exceed the performance of at least 33 percent of traditional graduating high school seniors. In 1999, about 526,000 of the 751,000 adults (70.1 percent) worldwide who took the GED test earned a high school equivalency credential24.

Anyone age 16 or older who is out of school and does not hold a high school diploma can register and take the GED test. Historically, the GED was established as a means of offering a high school credential to World War II veterans who might have interrupted their schooling to go to war. Since that time, the GED has been viewed as a second-chance program for people who failed to graduate from a regular high school program. Data on GED test-takers show that while the average age of GED test-takers is about 26, over the last quarter of a century, approximately 30 to 40 percent of the test-takers have been ages 16 through 1925.

In recent years, research on the adult outcomes for GED credential holders, as compared with dropouts on the one hand, and regular diploma recipients on the other, has fueled a debate over the value of the GED credential. There is conflicting evidence in the research literature concerning the effects of having a GED credential on labor force participation, employment, earnings, wage rates, postsecondary program participation, and persistence in postsecondary programs26.

These conflicting findings have led some to question the efficacy of promoting GED programs for youths who are still young enough to participate in regular high school programs. This debate highlights the need to monitor the characteristics and the relative size of the groups of dropouts, high school graduates, and alternative completers.

In October 1999, 85.9 percent of 18- through 24-year-olds had completed high school either by earning a traditional diploma or by alternate means such as an equivalency test (table 6). Approximately 76.8 percent of the 18- through 24-year-olds who were not still enrolled in high school held regular diplomas, which represented the high school graduation rate (as opposed to the high school completion rate). An additional 9.2 percent had completed high school by taking a high school equivalency test such as the GED. This represents about 1.9 million young adults.

CPS data indicating whether high school credentials were obtained through a regular diploma or through an alternative route were first collected in 198827. Between 1988 and 1999, the diploma rate declined by 3.5 percentage points, falling from 80.3 percent in 1988 to 76.8 percent in 1999. In comparison, the alternative credential rate increased by 5.0 percentage points, climbing from 4.2 percent to 9.2 percent over the same period. As noted in appendix C, the rate increase from 1993 to 1994 coincided with the CPS implementation of computer-assisted interviewing procedures. However, the rate also increased between 1994 and 1998.

Among young adults in the four racial/ethnic groups under study, Asians were most likely to have earned a high school diploma (87.8 percent), followed by whites (82.0 percent), blacks (72.9 percent), and then Hispanics (54.9 percent) (table 4). Although Hispanic youths were the least likely of the four racial/ethnic groups to have earned a high school diploma, they were as likely as white, black, and Asian young adults (approximately 6 to 11 percent of each group) to complete high school with an alternative diploma.

23 American Council on Education, Who Took the GED? GED 1999 Statistical Report (Washington DC, GED Testing Service, 1999). These numbers represent totals for adults worldwide who took the GED tests and earned high school equivalency credentials. For U.S. totals and more detailed GED trend data, see appendix C, figure C1 and table C3.
24 IBID.
25 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1999, NCES 2000-031 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000), table 107.
26 See, for example, R.J. Murnane, J.B. Willet, and K.P. Boudett, 1995, "Do High School Dropouts Benefit from Obtaining a GED?" Education and Policy Analysis 17 (2): 133-47; Iowa Department of Education, What Has Happened to Iowa's GED Graduates? A Two-, Five-, and Ten-Year Follow-Up Study, ED 344-047 (Des Moines: State of Iowa Department of Education, 1992); J. Baldwin, I.S. Hirsch, D. Rock, and K. Yamamoto, The Literacy Proficiencies of GED Examinees: Results from the GED-NALS Comparison Study (Washington, DC and Princeton, NJ: The American Council on Education and the Educational Testing Service, 1995). Also, for a detailed review of the literature, see U.S. Department of Education, National Library of Education, Educational and Labor Market Performance of GED Recipients, by D. Boesel, N. Alsalam, and T. Smith (Washington DC: 1996).
27 In the CPS data there may be some ambiguity concerning students who complete high school with a certificate of attendance. While they should be counted as noncompleters, some respondents may report them as completers when asked about educational attainment.
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