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Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing (2001)

Chapter:2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important

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Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
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2 What Completion Means and Why It's Important

It would seem to be an easy matter to determine whether or not a student has completed secondary school, but doing so is complicated by a growing number of alternatives to the traditional path of completing four years of coursework in an accredited secondary school and receiving a diploma. As Americans have developed the expectation that all students ought to complete high school and receive a credential, jurisdictions have responded by developing a wider variety of pathways for the students they serve. Sherman Dorn took note of the growing trend (beginning as early as the 1920s) for the mission of many high schools to be viewed as providing primarily vocational training and other programs for students not believed capable of challenging academic work. State- and local-level officials sought ways to provide diplomas for all without compromising the education they were offering to college-bound and other academically oriented students. Some cities established selective public high schools, such as Central High School in Philadelphia and Bronx High School of Science in New York City, that drew students from across the district who wished to pursue ambitious programs and were able to pass entrance requirements. Others established vocational schools for nonacademic students.

Tracking within schools is another method by which students have been placed on different trajectories; more recently, many districts have developed tiered diploma systems that often mirror the academic tracks. Currently, across all 50 states, 15 different types of diplomas are available, and only 8 states (Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma,

Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
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Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Washington) offer just one kind (Dorn, 2000:16). In 12 states an honors diploma is available, while 35 states offer some combination of individual education plan (IEP) diplomas (for students with some kind of disability) and certificates of attendance. For students who are being educated at home, states have different means of addressing the need for certification. The precise nature of what students must do to earn these different kinds of diplomas and the degree of variety they represent have not been well documented.

Alternative programs and certificates have been developed in response to the reality that secondary students' needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses differ, and we recognize that these alternatives can offer valuable options for many students. However, the alternatives and their effects on students' lives need to be better understood. Meanwhile, researchers have already looked closely at outcomes for students who obtain a high school diploma, those who do not, and those who obtain General Educational Development (GED) certification. There are clear differences in the outcomes for these three groups which indicate that obtaining a diploma has concrete benefits for young people the effects of which can last throughout their lives.

THE GED

Currently, more than 800,000 people take a GED Test every year, hoping to obtain a certificate that will be equivalent to a high school diploma in the eyes of employers and postsecondary institutions. However, the consequences of GED certification are not the same as those of earning a traditional high school diploma. The lifetime earnings of GED recipients are significantly lower than those of high school graduates, and they are not substantially higher than those of dropouts (see below). Moreover, while those who take the GED demonstrate some skills and knowledge by doing so, they have, presumably, missed something of value by dropping out of school. 1

The GED is described by the American Council on Education (ACE), which develops and administers it through the GED Testing Service, as a measure of the “academic skills and knowledge expected of high school

1 Not all people who take the GED are dropouts. Many immigrants, for example, whose school completion credentials are not recognized in the United States, need GED certification to pursue further education or employment.

Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
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graduates in the U.S. or Canada.” The GED was originally developed for veterans who had left high school to serve in World War II. It was not, however, widely considered a solution to the dropout problem until decades later. Today, according to the ACE, “about one in seven high school diplomas issued in the United States each year is based on passing the GED Tests” (American Council on Education, 2001).

The GED is a battery of five tests made up of multiple-choice questions and an essay. The five tested areas are writing, social studies, science, interpreting literature and the arts, and mathematics. The questions are also categorized according to Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives: comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The scale on which the GED tests are scored is based on the performance of graduating high school seniors, and the test is intended to provide an opportunity for nongraduates to demonstrate that they can match or exceed the performance of a defined set of graduating students. Individual states set passing scores, which vary significantly.

According to the GED Testing Service website (American Council on Education, 2001), “More than 95 percent of employers in the U.S. consider GED graduates the same as traditional high school graduates in regard to hiring, salary, and opportunity for advancement.” The percentage of students who receive the GED instead of a traditional diploma has grown from 2 percent in 1954 to 14 percent in 1987 (Cameron and Heckman, 1993:4). A number of scholars have considered the consequences for students of obtaining a GED diploma in lieu of a traditional one and have reached somewhat more complicated assessments. Richard Murnane and others have found that while those who have earned a GED diploma have greater earnings than those who drop out of school, “Acquisition of the GED credential is not a powerful strategy for escaping poverty” (Murnane et al., 1995:144). These scholars concluded that the primary benefit of earning the GED might lie in the fact that participating in the process leads young people to job-training programs and entry-level jobs. Additional research by Murnane et al. (1999) has found that the benefits of acquiring the GED may not apply equally to all students—that those who have higher skills at the point of dropping out fare better than those with lower ones, even if both earn a GED.

Cameron and Heckman found significant differences in the outcomes for GED recipients and traditional graduates. The found that “dropouts and [holders of the GED] have comparably poor wages,

Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
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earnings, hours of work, unemployment experiences, and job tenure” (Cameron and Heckman, 1993:43). They note also that the rise in GED certification, which has been particularly sharp for Hispanics and African Americans, accounts for a significant portion of the narrowing of the gap that has been observed between dropout rates for these two groups and whites. Cameron and Heckman observe that the growth of many federal and state adult education programs that support or encourage GED certification may have had the paradoxical effect of encouraging some young people to move away from traditional schooling (Cameron and Heckman, 1993a:36-43).

Murnane et al. (1999:13) found differences in patterns of postsecondary enrollment among conventional high school graduates, GED holders, and so-called “permanent” dropouts. By their analysis of data from the High School and Beyond Survey of the National Center for Education Statistics, many more GED recipients (30%) than dropouts (8%) obtain some postsecondary credit. However, while 36 percent of graduates complete four or more years of postsecondary education, less than 2 percent of GED holders do so.

Others have noted that while perceptions of the purpose of the GED have shifted, the benefits are not equal for all test takers (Chaplin, 1999). While it is clear that obtaining the GED is preferable to not receiving any credential, the benefits seem to be greatest for adults who have already moved well past high school age and for minorities. The GED Testing Service originally had a policy of recommending that GED test takers be age 20 or older because the test was not designed as an alternative to high school. The age has since been reduced to 16. Noting that currently more than 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds earn GED certification each year and that the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds whose credential is GED certification in lieu of a diploma has been increasing, Chaplin (1999) has argued that allowing teenagers to take the exam may have the unintended effect of encouraging some of them to drop out of school. It is also worth noting that the military no longer treats GED certification as equivalent to a diploma in evaluating recruits. While the GED clearly offers a material benefit for many young people who leave high school and wish to continue their education or improve their job prospects, statistically, GED holders are more similar to dropouts than to school completers in terms of their educational and employment outcomes.

Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
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TABLE 2-1 Impact of Schooling on the Annual Earnings and Unemployment Rates of Males

Schooling

Earnings (1992 $)

Unemployment Rate—1992

BA or more

$38,115

4.8 %

Assoc. Degree

$31,855

5.5 %

13-15 Yrs

$27,279

7.4 %

12Yrs

$22,494

8.2 %

9-11 Yrs

$16,194

12.4 %

SOURCE: Bishop et al., 2000:4.

ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF DROPPING OUT

The alternative of withdrawing from any kind of schooling before receiving a diploma is still the path taken by a significant number of young people. Researchers have found a number of ways to explore the consequences of this decision. The economic consequences are significant: The earnings of those who have not finished high school are lower than the earnings of those who have graduated throughout their working lives. A further gap exists between the earnings of those who have finished high school and those with further education, as illustrated in Table 2-1, which also shows the association between schooling and the unemployment rate.

For most students who fail to complete school, that outcome reflects many years of academic difficulty or missed opportunities to learn. While some high school dropouts go on to obtain further education, the majority do not. Comparisons of student performance on standardized tests show, not surprisingly, that staying in school increases achievement gains in all subjects (Ekstrom et al., 1987:56). Some research has suggested an association between dropping out and the likelihood of subsequent criminal activity. Pettit and Western (2001) found, for example, that the risk of being incarcerated by age 30-34 is significantly higher for young men (particularly young black men) who have not completed high school than for those who have. 2 Although statistical relationships between dropping out of



2 The racial differences found by Pettit and Western are striking. For example, among males born in 1955-1959, 21.9 percent of the blacks who had not completed high school were incarcerated by 1989, compared with 3.1 percent of white male noncompleters.

Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
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Page 27

school and other negative outcomes, such as incarceration, are suggestive, they do not establish causation. It may be that other factors associated with both dropping out and incarceration account for some portion of the statistical convergence. This is an area that needs further study.

There are other social costs associated with dropouts. Higher rates of unemployment and lower earnings mean less tax revenue, loss of productivity, and increased expenditures for social welfare programs. Dropouts also have more health problems than do nondropouts. Recent projections of both economic and demographic trends suggest likely increases in these social costs. As the U.S. economy increases its reliance on highly skilled labor, for example, workers without diplomas will face greater challenges in finding work. At the same time, the populations among whom dropout rates are highest are projected to increase (Rumberger, 2000:3).

Research on the characteristics of students who drop out is suggestive of other, more subtle negative outcomes as well. Survey questions asked of students in the High-School and Beyond Study conducted by NCES, for example, reveal that dropouts have significantly lower self-esteem than do students who remain in school and are more likely than those students to believe that their fate is out of their control (Ekstrom et al., 1987:58). Such findings do not establish that dropping out causes poor self-esteem and the like; rather, they lend support to the notion that dropping out is a process and that it is the culmination of a series of misfortunes and missed opportunities on the part of students, parents, teachers, and schools.

More important, these findings show clearly why dropping out is and should be considered a problem, regardless of either uncertainty about causation or differences of opinion regarding the nature and degree of education that is appropriate for different students. There is much to be said about the apparent tension between raising academic standards for all students and allowing sufficient flexibility in the system to accommodate students with differing strengths, motivation, and goals; it is also likely that a diploma by itself is of less value for a student who has not actually mastered defined academic objectives than for one who has. Nevertheless, entering adulthood without a diploma or with a lesser alternative to one is associated with serious economic and other consequences that can be discerned throughout life.

RECOMMENDATIONS

While the consequences of dropping out of school have been well established, as have the ways in which earning a GED credential in lieu of a

Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
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traditional diploma may affect later outcomes, the nature and implications of other alternatives to graduation have not. In view of the significant numbers of students who are currently availing themselves of these alternatives, it is important to understand what they involve.

Recommendation 1: The committee recommends to states and districts and to both researchers and funders of research that priority be placed on collecting key data that are disaggreggated to allow monitoring of such populations as different minority groups, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. These data should cover:

  • which students and how many students are receiving credentials, including GED certification, that are significantly different from the generally prevailing standards for high school graduation;
  • the nature of the academic requirements that lead to such credentials, and the extent to which those requirements are different from the generally prevailing academic standards for high school graduation;
  • the processes by which students are directed to or choose to pursue such alternate credentials; and
  • the later educational and employment outcomes for the students who receive these credentials.

Studies show that although GED certification can be beneficial for many students, it has less value than a standard diploma as a tool for pursuing both education and employment. It is important that policy makers, educators, parents, and students be aware of the distinctions among available credentials.

Recommendation 2: The committee recommends that officials at the school, district, and state levels disaggregate the data they already collect on school completers by the type of certificate awarded, including those awarded for passing the GED, and should make clear what knowledge and skills are represented by each credential. States, schools, and districts should also distinguish between GED holders and high school graduates in reporting data on school completion. These data should be disaggregated to allow monitoring of such populations as different minority groups, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
×
Page22
Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
×
Page23
Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
×
Page24
Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
×
Page25
Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
×
Page26
Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
×
Page27
Suggested Citation:"2. What Completion Means and Why It's Important." National Research Council. 2001. Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10166.
×
Page28
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The role played by testing in the nation's public school system has been increasing steadily—and growing more complicated—for more than 20 years. The Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity (CEETE) was formed to monitor the effects of education reform, particularly testing, on students at risk for academic failure because of poverty, lack of proficiency in English, disability, or membership in population subgroups that have been educationally disadvantaged. The committee recognizes the important potential benefits of standards-based reforms and of test results in revealing the impact of reform efforts on these students. The committee also recognizes the valuable role graduation tests can potentially play in making requirements concrete, in increasing the value of a diploma, and in motivating students and educators alike to work to higher standards. At the same time, educational testing is a complicated endeavor, that reality can fall far short of the model, and that testing cannot by itself provide the desired benefits. If testing is improperly used, it can have negative effects, such as encouraging school leaving, that can hit disadvantaged students hardest. The committee was concerned that the recent proliferation of high school exit examinations could have the unintended effect of increasing dropout rates among students whose rates are already far higher than the average, and has taken a close look at what is known about influences on dropout behavior and at the available data on dropouts and school completion.

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