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Dallas Jones is showing off some of his artwork at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in northwest D.C. All his designs have nautical themes: blue backgrounds with sailboats and fish.
"I spent 20 years in the Navy, enough said!"
In 1938, Jones, who is now 90, dropped out of school. He was 15 and had to help support his family. Two years later, he joined the Navy and was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked. After a few years of service, Jones decided to take the GED, or General Educational Development test, and passed.
"It's important, especially if you're down at the bottom, you've got to have an education," he says. "The GED filled that gap."
The GED test was started in 1942 for military veterans whose education was interrupted by World War II. It allowed thousands of service members, including Jones, to get a credential they could use to go on to college.
In 2010, it accounted for approximately 12 percent of all high school credentials given out in the U.S., and is recognized all over the country. The exam tests students' knowledge in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies.
"It was an accomplishment," he says. "I was glad to have the GED which is equivalent."
Many researchers argue, however, that it's not equivalent to a high school diploma. Janice Laurence, a professor at Temple University, says it's not even close.
Different outcomes for different credentials
In the 1980s, the Pentagon asked Laurence to research whether there were different outcomes for military recruits during their active duty years depending on whether they had a high school diploma or a GED certificate.
"It is incredibly consistent year to year, decade to decade," she says. "High school diploma graduates on average complete a three-year term of enlistment, and 24 percent of them leave before completing that term of enlistment. The corresponding rate for GEDs is 45 percent. So almost half of them do not complete."
Each new recruit who drops out of the military early means tens of thousands of dollars in wasted training. Now GED certificate holders are considered "second tier candidates." Laurence says they're hired by the military "sparingly."
Others have also documented differences in outcomes between people with high school diplomas and those with GED certificates. Tim Kautz at the University of Chicago is working with Nobel Laureate James Heckman on a book about the GED test. Kautz says people with the GED credential do worse in a number of areas compared to high school graduates.
"We study GED recipients through age 40, and we find they have lower earnings, they have lower employment rates, higher divorce rates, and also lower levels of health," he says.
The GED test is also often billed as a gateway to higher education. But he says that's not so.
"We find that about 40 percent of GED recipients tried some form of post-secondary education, but about half of them drop out within the first year, and within six years, only 1 percent earn a bachelor's degree," says Kautz.
He argues that including GED certificates in the national graduation rate for years distorted the actual skill level of the nation's future workforce, and it hid inequalities.
"If you count GED recipients as high school graduates, the black-white gap in high school graduation has closed substantially," he says. "If you don't, there's been no progress in the last 40 years."
Researchers believe the GED certificate misses qualities known as "soft skills." High school is not just about academics. Students learn how to be persistent and disciplined as well as how to work in a team, follow rules and show up on time.
Researchers believe when the GED test was introduced in the 1940s it was very helpful for veterans. Janice Laurence says that's because they took the GED test after they had served in the military. She credits the outcome to their experiences while in service. The problem, she says, is when the test was applied to a different population; it was no longer as useful.
GED certificate as a "critical pathway"
After 20 years in the Navy, Dallas Jones the veteran who served during Pearl Harbor, worked for a defense contractor. He says he's had a "blessed" life, but even though Jones credits the GED test with helping him a lot, he made sure his children completed school the traditional way. "Don't drop out, don't do it," he advised them. "There's nothing like the real high school diploma."
CT Turner with the GED Testing Service challenges criticism of the exam.
"A lot of economists, they punch some holes, and say, maybe someone who earns GED credential doesn't earn much more than someone who drops out, or much more than a high school credential holder, but this is not important," he says.
Turner says the GED test is a "critical pathway" and without it, the approximately 30 million adults who don't have a high school credential, couldn't even apply for most jobs or go on to higher education. Turner is right. The GED test has become a ticket to some federal jobs programs, college grants and even for prisoners, a chance to get out of jail a little sooner. It has given many immigrants a better shot at staying in the U.S. Thanks to these government incentives, the number of people taking the test has soared.
Options for the future
Kiana Rucker is 35 years old and attends classes at Southeast Ministries, an adult education center in D.C. She recently passed the GED test.
Rucker dropped out of school in the 10th grade and relies mostly on a combination of food stamps, medical assistance and subsidized housing to get by. She struggled in her GED class for more than three years.
"It was not easy," she says. "I had to take the math five times before I passed it."
She stayed only because each time she took the GED test, her scores crept up. Finally, she got a call saying she'd passed. "The first thing I said was 'are you sure you have the right person?'" Rucker recalls, laughing.
Her teacher Paul Ruffins says his average student comes in at the sixth grade level in reading and third grade in math. They need to get to the ninth grade level to start preparing for the GED test. Ruffins says many of his students find it difficult to stick with class because of job schedules, uncertain child care and bad memories of what he calls, "educational humiliation."
"Many people have undiagnosed learning disabilities, we say 'some people dropped out', but in truth many people escaped," he says.
But those who persevere may do so because they learned some of the soft skills along the way.
Kiana Rucker was the only one in her class of 15 who passed. She's looking forward to the rest of her life.
"So many things I can do now, so many options," she says. "To go to college, to like get into a trade, just a job period. Because that's the first thing they ask 'do you have a high school diploma or GED.' Now I can feel good to say 'yes, I do have it.'"
But even with the GED credential, Rucker may find it hard to get ahead. The test is just a small step on a very steep ladder, but she is determined to defy the obstacles that have defeated so many others like her.
Slideshow: Dallas Jones
Dallas Jones is a 90-year-old Navy veteran. He took and passed the GED test in 1947. View the slideshow for his story, and to hear the advice he has for today's younger generation.
Photos by Jared Angle
Produced by Kavitha Cardoza and Jared Angle
[Music: "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime (instrumental)" performed by Jean-Marc Boël, composed by James Warren (The Korgis) ]