College of Education > News and Publications > News: Jan. - March 2011 > Study Identifies Shared, Different Traits Among GED Candidates

Study Identifies Shared, Different Traits Among GED Candidates

A study conducted for the Pennsylvania legislature by a College of Education researcher paints a comprehensive picture of the adults who take the GED in the Commonwealth and the reasons they left high school in the first place. The report also provides recommendations for improving the success rate of GED candidates in Pennsylvania.

by David Price (March 2011)

University Park, Pa. -- A Penn State College of Education study conducted for the Pennsylvania legislature paints a comprehensive picture of the adults who take the GED® Tests in the Commonwealth. The GED (General Educational Development) Tests are a battery of educational competency tests, the successful completion of which results in the equivalent of a high school diploma for people who did not graduate from high school. The study looked at a variety of factors including why the candidates decided to take the GED Tests and how they prepared for them. The report also provides recommendations for improving the success rate of GED candidates in Pennsylvania.

photograph of Barbara Van HornBarbara Van Horn of Penn State's College of Education served as principal investigator for the study—titled An Analysis of Rural and Urban Pennsylvania Adults Taking, Completing and Passing the GED. Van Horn is co-director and senior research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy and the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy in the College of Education. For the study, she collaborated with Cathy Kassab, principal of By The Numbers, who conducted the data analyses.

"Most people are unaware that we have in Pennsylvania alone nearly 1.3 million adults aged 18 and older who have left high school without a diploma according to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey," observes Van Horn. "This is a little over 13% of our adult population, and that doesn't include youth aged 16-17 who also leave school without a diploma each year." Of that population, only 1.4% of them attempted to obtain their GED.

"It should alarm us that so many adults lack high school diplomas since this basic credential often opens doors to employment," Van Horn says.

The study was funded by a grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The research looked at five years of data from 68,317 Pennsylvanians who took the GED between 2003 and 2008, examining similarities and differences between the urban and rural adults who took the tests.

Both rural and urban GED candidates tended to be young (with an average age of 24), according to the report. They tended to have completed 10th grade before dropping out of high school and to have dropped out for reasons such as excessive absenteeism, boredom, poor study habits and/or deficient math skills. About a third were employed full-time; however, about 60% reported income of less than $5,000 per year.

Among the differences between the urban and rural candidates: rural candidates traveled farther than urban adults to take the GED and a greater percentage of urban adults were ethnically diverse than were their rural counterparts. Other differences include rural GED candidates being less likely than urban candidates to be female or single parents. Rural candidates were more likely than urban candidates to have dropped out of high school because they did not like school or because of a job. Overall, rural GED scores were lower than urban GED scores by an average of 11 points.

Of all the test-takers during the studied time period, 72% obtained their GEDs , meaning that more than a quarter of the candidates were unsuccessful in their attempts.

"I am curious about the adults who were not successful. I assume that these would be adults with limited academic skills, particularly in math. This would be an interesting area for additional research. What support might increase the success rate for those adults?" says Van Horn. "Currently, local education providers, with funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education, provide most of the instructional support for adults preparing for the GED Tests. Unfortunately, funding available to provide this instruction is limited, leaving adults without a high school credential in our state with limited options for obtaining a high school credential." The report provides several recommendations, among them:

  • Offering short but intense and challenging classes to prepare GED candidates for testing
  • Emphasizing math skill improvement
  • Linking class content to work since many GED candidates seek better job opportunities
  • Increasing access to services through adult basic education providers
  • Helping adults learn to use the resources available to effectively make the transition from obtaining the GED to work or postsecondary education and/or training

The entire report is available at The Center for Rural Pennsylvania's website.