D.C. greenlights path to a high school diploma for those who pass the GED

Students graduate from the Next Step Public Charter School in Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Students graduate from the Next Step Public Charter School in Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

By Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post reporter

The District’s State Board of Education approved a resolution Wednesday night directing the city’s top education official to draft regulations that would allow students who pass the GED exam to receive a high school diploma.

Board members said they hope that offering those who pass the high school equivalency test a diploma, rather than a certificate, would lessen the stigma for those who earn a GED and remove barriers to employment for some of the thousands of young adults in the District who did not graduate from high school.

Ruth Wattenberg, the board member from Ward 3, said that after careful review of the competencies required to pass the GED, she believes that passing the test is an accomplishment worthy of a high school diploma.

The GED was rewritten in 2014 to include more rigorous content aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The test is normed so that those who pass must outperform about 40 percent of students who graduate from high school.

[GED high school equivalency test to get major overhaul, become more difficult]

The board’s vote gives the Office of the State Superintendent of Education authority to draft regulations and issue them for public comment. The state board probably will take a final vote in January or February.

Issuing a state diploma for GED holders has gained widespread political support as the District works to address the city’s high dropout rate and create more pathways to high-paying jobs for its low-income residents. Maryland already offers GED recipients a diploma.

At a public hearing Saturday, D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, said that the council would pursue separate legislation if the State Board of Education did not act.

According to the regulations, the city also would award diplomas to students who meet the requirements of the National External Diploma Program (NEDP), which evaluates reading, writing, math and workforce-readiness skills and enables people to meet the requirements by performing “real-life tasks.”

Wattenberg tried to amend the regulations to remove that stipulation because she said the state board needed additional time to examine that program’s rigor and requirements.

“We should get the evidence first that it works,” she said.

Board member Laura Wilson Phelan (Ward 1) said she was comfortable with the program, based on her own review. But she echoed Wattenberg’s concerns that the state board should set a high bar for decision-making based on “evidence and rigor.”

“There is a danger we are passing things because we feel political pressure to do so, not because there is evidence,” she said. “I do worry a lot about this board acting as a rubber stamp for things that other bodies feel is a priority.”

Last fall, the Office of the State Superintendent brought similar regulations to the state board for approval before the public comment period was over. The state board ultimately delayed a vote to allow for more time to review the proposals. The regulations also included sweeping changes to how high schools award credit.

[D.C. State Board of Education to consider early vote on new graduation requirements]

Board members said they wanted to make clear to the public that a new state diploma would not have a sweeping impact in outcomes for many residents. Students who pass the GED, no matter what credential it comes with, still struggle in the labor market.

“This is not a magical formula. This is not a key to a door that will lead to a golden life,” said board member Mary Lord (At Large), noting that the unemployment rate for residents without a high school diploma is 19 percent, compared with 18 percent for those with a high school diploma. The unemployment rate does not significantly drop until students have earned a college degree.

The resolution specifies that the state diploma for the GED or the NEDP will not be included in District-level or school-level adjusted cohort graduation rates, the standard way four- and five-year graduation rates are calculated. Applicants for the GED test should be at least 18 years old, and applicants for the NEDP must be at least 25.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said that the GED is a more rigorous test now — “It’s been brought into the 21st century,” he said — and that offering a diploma for those who pass the test is a fair approach for the city to take.

“It’s like giving a kid a clean scrub on his record,” he said. “What really separates young people is how many mistakes you get to make. If you are more affluent, you get to make a lot of mistakes. You get a lot of backup. I’m sorry to say you don’t when you are young and you make mistakes and you come from a less-advantaged background.”