Academic journal article College English

What Is the Value of the GED?

Academic journal article College English

What Is the Value of the GED?

Article excerpt

One of the defining characteristics of the United States is its promise of a second chance; this promise is central to our vision of ourselves and to our economic and civic dynamism. When we are at our best as a society, our citizens are not trapped by their histories.

-Mike Rose, Back to School (xiii)

Carmen stands up to tell her story, after being invited to represent Mercy Learning Center,1 a literacy center for women, at a meeting with local com- munity members. Having recently attained her GED after more than two and a half years of studying, she exemplifies the success of the Center's stu- dents. A room full of people listens as Carmen tells her story of early hardships-the deaths of her mother and sister, being sent to live with relatives she did not know, her guardian's decision to take her out of school in ninth grade-and of her recent commitment to study for the GED while working and raising three children on her own. Since passing the GED a few months earlier, she explains, she has completed a certificate program in medical technology and hopes soon to take her state exam. Once she gets her Section-8 voucher, she continues, she and her children will move out of the shelter. Then, she feels confident, she will continue her education and move ahead in a job.

Like other women at the Center, Carmen had been willing to make enormous sacrifices to attain the GED, a credential that is, by definition, a "second-chance" degree, designed for adults who, for some reason, have not completed high school in the conventional way. After being out of school for more than a decade, Carmen needed more than two years of tutoring at Mercy Learning Center and repeated attempts at the GED to pass the exam and attain her degree. For part of that time, Carmen worked with Betsy in a writing class designed for students who had failed the essay portion of the GED. Located in an urban area in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mercy Learning Center provides what it describes as a holistic approach to adult education. The stars of the Center are the women studying for their GED degrees. Most take classes five hours a day, five days a week; a few work with tutors. Graduates' names are inscribed on a plaque in the lobby, and photos of recent GED recipients decorate the walls, material evidence for both the Center's students and its funders, of the Center's success. Yet Carmen's story illustrates some of the complexities of the GED. Without the GED, students like Carmen have no chance at moving on to postsecondary education or, in many cases, obtaining employment; yet, even with it, many remain, as Mike Rose puts it, "trapped by their histories" (xiii) in a tight labor market where jobs that pay sustainable wages are limited.

Many of us in higher education have thought deeply about the complexities of developing and assessing literacy. We have been vocal about the risks of high-stakes testing, whether that is in K-12 state exams or in college placement exams for first- year composition. But we have largely overlooked what may be the ultimate high- stakes test of literacy: the GED. In this article we argue that the GED represents a confluence of issues with which English studies is, and must be, deeply involved: definitions and assessment of literacy; access to higher education; and the needs of multilingual learners. We contend that the GED is significant for English studies not only because of the large number of adults who take it, but also because of what it reveals about what literacy means to and for adults who lack educational credentials. Further, we question the implicit definition of literacy in the test as reductive, and we warn that the use of automated essay scoring, scheduled to begin in 2014, may push GED students and their teachers toward even more formulaic writing. Recog- nizing that literacy practices are embedded in the material conditions in which they occur and, in turn, have economic consequences, we use Mercy Learning Center as a case study, examining the relationship between the literacy demands embedded in the GED and the economic and other value that it holds for those who seek it. …

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