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General Educational Development Test - History, Changes at the Start of the Twenty-First Century, Test Description, Resources

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The General Educational Development Test (GED) is a battery of tests designed to measure the educational level of people who did not formally complete high school. Candidates who successfully pass the five subject area tests are awarded a high school equivalency certificate recognized by state education departments. The American Council on Education (ACE) offers the GED and preparation guidance across the United Sates and worldwide. Other organizations, such as the National Institute for Literacy, also offer Adult Basic and Secondary Education programs designed to aid adults in completing the GED successfully. Developed during World War II to assist veterans who had left high school before graduation to enlist in the military, the GED test battery underwent revisions for 2002, which were designed to make the test comparable to standards-oflearning tests compulsory in most states since the mid-1990s.


After World War I, veterans who had left high school to enlist in the armed services were awarded diplomas in exchange for their service to the nation. After World War II, however, returning soldiers were required to pass a test before being given their high school equivalency certificates. The U.S. Armed Forces Institute examination staff first constructed the GED test in 1942. In 1945 ACE established the Veterans' Testing Service (VTS), and beginning in 1947 tests were distributed to civilian institutions where veterans were applying for employment or college admission. By 1959 more civilians than veterans were being given the GED test, and in 1963 the VTS changed its name to the General Educational Development Testing Service to reflect this shift in test-taking populations. Early tests were designed so that most veterans would pass, and more than 90 percent did. The test was revised in 1988 to include an essay section, and remained essentially unchanged until January 2002, when a series of revisions went into effect. At the turn of the twenty-first century, more than 860,000 people take the tests annually, and one in seven people who finish high school earns the credential by passing the GED test. High school graduation rates published by the U.S. Census Bureau include GED holders, and the certificate is seen as interchangeable with a high school diploma for most employers and colleges. Although researchers debate the success of the GED in helping individuals attain meaningful careers, it is clear that the GED is an important part of the American educational landscape.

Changes at the Start of the Twenty-First Century

The General Educational Development test questions and norms have been revised beginning in 2002 as a response to the standards movement in American secondary education. The overall impact of the revisions is to make the test more difficult. The previous test was structured to provide a failure rate of about one in three; however, revised cutoff scores are now designed so that 40 percent of high school seniors would not pass. The designers of the revised GED tests responded to complaints from colleges and employers about poorly educated GED holders by developing questions geared to identify and measure practical knowledge and life skills. Information sources such as product labels and legal documents are used to generate questions and answers. The revised GED tests are designed to be an improved measurement of a student's practical skills, dispositions, and abilities.

Test Description

Like other standardized tests, the GED is primarily a multiple-choice test in each content area. The General Educational Development questions fall into five test areas similar to those of public secondary standards-based assessments: writing skills, literature and arts, mathematics, social studies, and science. The writing test is divided into two sections: the first presents sentences that may or may not include errors that require correction. These questions are similar to those of the SAT Test of Standard Written English (as administered prior to 1994) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The second writing skills test is to construct an essay of about 200 words on one of several topics provided by the test makers.

Like the PSAT and SAT essays, the GED writing test is holistically scored on a scale from one to six. Graders emphasize clarity of composition, support for ideas, and sentence mechanics. The revised, twopart mathematics section tests skills in arithmetic operations, algebra, and geometry. Test takers respond to equations, word problems, and data displayed on charts and graphs. Sample questions provided by ACE emphasize real-world numeric texts, such as federal tax allocations, personal earnings, and nutritional values charts. All mathematics questions were formerly in the multiple-choice form; in 2002, 20 percent require fill-in responses and students are allowed to use calculators. The social studies section tests knowledge in economics, political science, geography, and the behavioral sciences (anthropology, psychology, sociology). Social studies questions are different in Canadian versions of GED tests than in the United States. Science questions are based on information typically taught in earth science, biology, physics, and chemistry. Students are asked to analyze charts, graphs, drawings, or questions, and identify the best solution to the practical problems presented. Sample GED science question topics include the principles of buoyancy, displacement, spectrum heat absorption comparison, and chart-reading skills. The literature and the arts section of the test once emphasized reading comprehension only in the areas of popular and classical poetry, fiction, nonfiction prose, and drama. The revised test includes passages from other real-world text sources such as tax documents and commentaries.


The American Council on Education provides test preparation materials and sample questions in each content area, as well as a comprehensive preparation guide. The GED Testing Center also includes a directory of adult education and GED prep classes. The GED tests are available in Spanish and French for qualified applicants, and special accommodations are available for candidates with disabilities. Accommodations include an audiocassette edition, largeprint edition, braille edition, extended time, use of a scribe, talking calculators, private room use, one-on-one testing at a candidate's home, visionenhancing technologies, video equipment, signlanguage interpreter, or other accommodation in cases where circumstances warrant.


KLEINER, CAROLYN. 2001. "The GED's New Math." U.S. News and World Report December 17:42–43.

MURNANE, RICHARD J., and TYLER, JOHN H. 2000. "The Increasing Role of the GED in American Education." Education Week 19 (34):64, 48.


AMERICAN COUNCIL ON EDUCATION. "General Educational Development Tests." 2002. <>.

NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR LITERACY. "General Educational Development Tests." 2002. <>.


Teaching of Geography - Effectiveness of Instruction, Maps and Spatial Concepts, Evaluating Geographic Learning [next] [back] General Education in Higher Education - The Difference between Liberal Education and General Education, The Goals of General Education

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