Academic journal article High School Journal

Repatriating the GED: Urban Youth and the Alternative to a High School Diploma

Academic journal article High School Journal

Repatriating the GED: Urban Youth and the Alternative to a High School Diploma

Article excerpt

This article discusses competing perspectives on the value of the General Educational Development (GED) credential. Although scholars and journalists debate the worth of the credential, urban youth continue to pursue the GED, especially as proxy for inadequate schooling. Using qualitative data from a participatory action research project, the author appraises the value of the GED from the perspectives of urban youth, and argues that youth place significance in the credential in ways previously ignored and under theorized by educational researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.


The General Educational Development (GED) credential is widely perceived as an alternative to a high school diploma, although it is not evenly recognized as equivalent to a high school diploma. This article will explore different perspectives on the value and use of the GED, especially the perspectives of youth who have earned or are in the process of earning the credential. The strategy of this article is to contrast scholarly and popular perspectives on the value and use of the GED with the perspectives of youth who pursue and earn the credential. Utilizing qualitative data from a comprehensive participatory action research project, I will critique the existing literature on the diminished value of the GED and argue that the GED is valuable in youth lives for a range of reasons, most notably as a legitimized exit route from caustic high schools. In this way, the value of the GED is repatriated to the youth who seek it.

Nationally, secondary school graduation rates are disproportionately lower for Black, Latino and Native American youth, at 40-50%, than White youth, who have graduation rates of 60-70%. Secondary school graduation rates are also disproportionate by income: youth from low-income families are twice as likely to be non-completers as youth from middle-income families, and six times more likely to be non-completers than youth from high-income families (Fine and Ruglis, 2008). The GED is commonly viewed one way for students who have not completed a high school diploma to earn a credential that will allow them to gain access to college, or sustained employment, but many sources say that it is not a reliable or effective path.

The empirical data discussed in this article are from a mixed-method participatory action research study, the Gateways and Getaways Project, which spanned 18 months in 2006 and 2007 in New York City. (1) I assembled a diverse group of youth aged 17-21, and together we designed the study, created the study instruments, collected the data, analyzed the data, and disseminated our findings (see also Tuck, et. al., 2008 & Tuck, 2009a). We called our group the Collective of Researchers on Educational Disappointment and Desire (CREDD). The project amassed both qualitative and quantitative data, but this article reports only on qualitative interview data; data reported in this article are from our one-hour semi-structured individual interviews (n=25) with youth GED earners and seekers, and with youth GED earners now in later adulthood (n=10), including six GED instructors.

In 1996, the New York State Board of Regents along with State Commissioner of Education Richard Mills decided to phase out the local diploma option and make five Regents exams mandatory for graduation. (2) "(W)hile the practice of aligning curricula and exams in New York is not new," Sipple, Killeen, and Monk (2004) note, "the mandate that every student in the state must pass the exams in order to graduate from high school is unprecedented" (p. 143). The phase-out process, which began in 2000, has been long and uneven. As noted, the empirical study reported in this article was conducted in 2006-7, when for the first time, the only way to earn a high school diploma in New York City was by passing the five exit exams. The employment of the once-voluntary Regents exams as mandatory exit exams has had a dramatic impact on school-level policies and practices, including practices which surreptitiously encourage some youth to pursue a GED instead of a high school diploma. …

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