The New York State Education Department is thinking about replacing the General Education Diploma test because of its cost, up to $6 million per year, and its 60 percent pass rate, the lowest in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported. One alternative, according to the Journal, might be a computer-based exam of practical skills such as "measuring a room for carpeting, writing a letter to Congress and calculating credit card interest payments."
For high-school aged students especially, such an exam would be a poor substitute for the GED since, obviously, there is more to a high school education than basic skills requiring little more than eighth-grade math and grammar. The effect would be just another way to improperly inflate the number of high school degrees granted, in the same manner that Regents exams have been dumbed down and "credit recovery" programs substitute make-work for actual subject mastery, leaving the impression of college and career readiness without the substance.
But a relatively quick, cheap, and instructionally legitimate change to state law could raise graduation rates without lowering standards.
Currently, New York State Commissioner's Regulation § 175.5(a)(3), and similar mandates around the country, requires all students in grades 7-12 to have five and a half hours of instruction per day. This requirement makes sense for most students and forces districts to provide minimally adequate class time.
GED-eligible students, though, are older and often need to work. The daily instructional requirement actually encourages their dropping out rather than encouraging completion of necessary credits up to age 21, their legal right. These students -- 18 or over, in the military, or out of prison -- should be able to enroll in regular high school courses that they missed or failed the first time without having to remain in school all day. Changing the requirement for these students, at their option, could make all the difference in their graduating from a regular high school with a regular degree.
This is neither a shortcut nor a lowering of standards. Allowing overage, under-credited students the opportunity to meet graduation requirements through part-time attendance is simply a recognition that their life circumstances and, often, demonstrated aversion to full-time instruction make them different from other teenagers. Theirs would be an understandable exception to the usual rule and could be narrowly tailored, preventing younger students from receiving truncated schedules. Further, it would provide a cost-effective method of increasing meaningful graduation rates without substituting computerized "life skills" tests of dubious worth.
This column was previously published in slightly different form at GothamSchools.org