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Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2008

NCES 2011-012
December 2010

GED Testing Service

The GED Testing Service (GEDTS) collects data on individuals who take the GED exam each year and on individuals who pass the exam each year. These data are collected from test sites both in the United States and internationally. The GEDTS releases the data in aggregate form in annual statistical reports. The reports are organized to allow readers to differentiate between those individuals taking and passing the exam in the United States and those taking and passing the exam outside of the United States. Though GEDTS designs and administers the exam, states and sometimes jurisdictions within a state determine who can take the exam, how much pre-exam preparation is required, what scores are needed to pass the exam, how and when exam can be retaken, how much the exam cost, and the official name of the resulting credential (see http://www2.acenet.edu/gedtest/policy/index.cfm?return=1 for details). 

Prior to 2000, NCES completion and dropout reports presented estimates of those holding alternative credentials such as GEDs directly from CPS data as part of the status completion rate. Examination of the changes in the CPS alternative credential items in the October 2000 and subsequent surveys has indicated that these estimates may not be reliable estimates of high school equivalency completions.10 Therefore, CPS estimates of the method of high school equivalency completion were not presented in several NCES reports. Because GED recipients do have notably different life experiences than those with no high school credential and those with a regular high school diploma, the loss of information about alternative credential holders was an important measurement problem. In response, NCES developed an approach for using GEDTS to estimate how many young people in the civilian, noninstitutionalized population in a given age range had earned a GED by passing the GED exam. It is important to acknowledge here that Mishel and Roy (2006) simultaneously and independently developed a similar approach for research that they were conducting. 

Table A-2 provides a summary of the data released by GEDTS on the number of people passing the exam each year and the age distribution of those passing the exam (American Council on Education, GED Testing Service 1991–2002, 2003–06, 2007, 2008, 2009). For the U.S. population, GEDTS indicates that approximately 250,000 persons ages 18–24 passed the GED in 2008. The GED status rate indicates the percentage of individuals in a given age range who passed the GED exam irrespective of when they passed the exam. In order to derive the GED status rate, data from several GEDTS reports were combined. For 18- through 24-year-olds, this was done by adding the count of 18- through 24-year-olds who passed the exam in 2008 to counts of people who were ages 18–24 in 2008, but who passed the exam in earlier years. The number of 18- through 24-year-olds who passed the exam in 2008 was added to the number of 17- through 23-year-olds who passed the exam in 2007. That sum was added to the number of 16- through 22-year-olds who passed the exam in 2006, the number of 16- through 21-year-olds who passed the exam in 2005, the number of 16- through 20-year-olds who passed the exam in 2004, the number of 16- through 19-year-olds who passed the exam in 2003, the number of 16- through 18-year-olds who passed the exam in 2002, the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who passed the exam in 2001, and the number of 16-year-olds who passed the exam in 2000. Sixteen year-olds in 2000 would have been 24 in 2008. Based on this approach, approximately 1,622,000 persons ages 18 through 24 held a GED in 2008.

Because the CPS-based status rates developed for this report focus on individuals in the civilian, noninstitutionalized population, adjustments were made to the GED count estimates.  GED count data are reported by year the GED was earned, whereas the status rates reflect the experience of individuals over multiple year periods. As such, individuals might have been part of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population when they earned a GED, and subsequently joined the military or the prison populations. Alternatively, individuals might have been in the military or prison when they earned a GED and subsequently reentered the civilian, noninstitutionalized population. To account for both possibilities, data for current active-duty military personnel for 2008 were obtained from the Defense Manpower Data Center and from the Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2004 (op. cited). More recent prison data including inmate educational attainment were not available. Rates derived from the 2004 prison data were applied to 2008 prison data that contained prison inmate age distributions (table A-3). Prison data for 2008 were drawn from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Prisoner Statistics 2008 (1b). After these adjustments, the estimated number of 18- through 24-year-old individuals in the civilian, noninstitutionalized population holding a GED in 2008 was approximately 1,500,000.  A similar approach was used to estimate the number of 16-24-year-olds in the civilian, noninstitutionalized population holding a GED in 2008.  

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10 For a comparison of estimates from the CPS and the GED Testing Service of the number of 18- through 24-year-olds who have received a GED, see table A-1 in Laird, J., DeBell, M., Kienzl, G., and Chapman, C. (2007). Dropout Rates in the United States: 2005 (NCES 2007-059). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.
The GED Testing Service reports 20- through 24-year-olds as one age group. Single year of age data for those in the 20–24-year-old group was estimated by dividing the group count by 5 in a given year.


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