Friday, September 6, 2013

Understanding the GED Exam

I happened to catch a noon-hour documentary on MPR today called Second Chance Diploma: Examining the GED. I didn't know the General Equivalency Degree exam was created to award high school diplomas to soldiers returning from World War II. And that when it was first created, you could pass it by getting just a few more questions right than could be gotten by chance.

But then, as the test became used more widely by states in the 1960s and '70s, the Army noticed that inductees with a GED were not "good" soldiers. So the passing level was raised. But that didn't work -- even though people with GEDs had as much knowledge as people with high school diplomas, they didn't make good soldiers. Cognitive skills do not equal the social skills required to put up with organized education. Big surprise.

A major focus of the show was whether it's good policy to let teenagers drop out and take the GED instead, knowing that decision may have a downside for their career options. It seems employers have figured out the same thing the military realized. An array of academics who study the GED were interviewed to discuss that question.

The last part of the show focused on middle-aged people in Washington, D.C., who are attending an educational program to help them get their GEDs. These are folks who worked for years, usually decades, in relatively unskilled Federal jobs, but lost their positions when the requirements were raised out from under them. One woman had been an assistant teacher in an infant child care center; a man had been a security guard. Both were let go and haven't been able to find work since.

Thinking about what they were up against, I thought it would be only fair for me to go and see what the GED test is like, so I went to a free online practice site. I answered 125 questions in five subject areas, which took about an hour. I hear the GED is a seven-hour exam. I don't know if I could sit for a seven-hour exam anymore, so that made me wonder about the folks in the D.C. program, many of whom were about my age.

I ended up with an 82 percent score; passing appears to be somewhere around 65 percent, so yay for me, I still can graduate from high school. I had the wrong answers to 22 questions, a little more than half of which were math or science. Any question with slopes, graphs, or unapplied algebra is too much for me these days, though I did well on the real-world math questions. And I blew some science questions that would probably shock you.

But the language and social studies questions they marked wrong are all highly debatable, in my opinion: the reading comprehension one that asks which word best expresses the main idea of a passage, but offers two perfectly good answers; the question that oversimplified the causes of the Baby Boom; the incomprehensibly written passage that requires correction, but you can't even understand it well enough to answer some of the questions.

There were questions that seemed to be written to trip up anyone but a very experienced reader of English, or even anyone who is hurrying. I favor test questions that are written in a straightforward way, which many of the questions were, so good for the test-givers on those ones, but boo to the ones that are only meant to deceive the unsuspecting.

You can see my wrong answers here, and view the questions by clicking the numbers with the red X alongside too see how dumb I can be. Though you won't always be able to judge the ones that require reading an extra passage of text.

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