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Dissertation Dispels GED Myths

Steven Meeker, author of the dissertation, “An Examination of General Educational Development (GED) Programs and Students in Texas”

The dissertation of a recent SHSU doctoral graduate is making statements most educators and even legislators probably don’t want to recognize: that the high school equivalency test just may be a valid instrument of assessing knowledge and may be the best route for some.

“An Examination of General Educational Development (GED) Programs and Students in Texas” looks at Texas high school dropouts and factors behind doing so, the decision by the State Legislature to end in-school GED programs and the impact the GED test has had on those dropouts’ lives.

“Up until the 1990s in Texas, the school districts were granted the option of offering GED programs as a measure to help high school students who were struggling or were going to drop out to help them recover some of the dropout; at least they would have the GED,” said Steven Meeker, the dissertation’s author.

“Well, it became controversial in the 2001 legislative session. There were some who were saying that those GED programs in schools were encouraging students to drop out; just their presence was making it too easy for students to drop out, and they weren’t really applying themselves,” he said. “That caused the legislature in 2001 to make a change in the law that actually made it so difficult, by tightening up the criteria, that hardly anyone would get in.”

The “contradictory law” led the in-school programs, one of which Meeker was involved in at the time, to be shut down, as there were no qualifying students.

A speaker on GED strategies, Meeker decided to further investigate the GED to find out if the program did indeed encourage students to drop out and began surveying 20 different adult GED classes across the state.

What he found shattered the stereotypes commonly associated with those who do not finish high school.

Out of 227 students, of varying ethnicities and aged 16-29, Meeker found that approximately 25 percent listed pregnancy or parenting as the No. 1 reason they dropped out, including seven men.

“That’s pretty a significant finding; it kind of surprised me,” he said, adding that studies of this nature had been done in states like Oregon, where the same answer ranked eighth, but there were very few, if any, in Texas.

Other reasons for dropping out included “my own bad attitude/poor choices” (ranked second), conflicts with teachers or a dysfunctional home setting (Nos. 2 and 3), not fitting in (No. 4), working too much (No. 5) and substance abuse (No. 10).

“The one factor that prevented me from completing high school was that I got pregnant in high school and my school counselor told me I would never graduate,” one student responded to the open-ended question.

“I was 14 when I got pregnant with my little girl, and I went to school, but the stress of coming home and taking care of a home, a husband, a baby and doing homework and cooking was too much stress for me,” another drop-out said. “Now I feel so dumb for doing that. I wish I would have stayed in school.”

He also found that many people go on to have successful lives after taking the equivalency test, listing such actors as Bill Cosby and Michael J. Fox who have GEDs. Cosby went on to earn a doctorate degree in education from the University of Massachusetts—Amherst in 1977.

“Some careers represented by this group include teaching, counseling, nursing, auto mechanic, airplane mechanic, electrician, accounting, executive secretary, sales manager, and cosmetologist,” Meeker said, adding that some of these occupations require further education and many are currently in college. “There is a professor at Sam, who now has a doctorate, who started with GED.

“You run into people from all walks of life that, for whatever reason, were not able to graduate, so they got a GED and went on to college or on to the workforce,” he said.

The students who received GEDs were pretty thrilled with it; they felt it offered them a great number of opportunities, according to Meeker.

“Getting my GED was much more of a major turning point in my life, more so than graduating high school would have been,” one survey said.

“Graduation was just an expectation. After I dropped out, I didn’t have any expectations, I was feeling really badly about myself, and how my life was going to turn out,” the person wrote. “After getting my GED, my life has taken a complete 180 degrees, in a whole new direction, and it’s been getting better and better ever since…”

These kinds of responses validate the GED not only as a test but as an assessment of knowledge, Meeker said.

“I feel this study does a good job of legitimizing the GED as a valid certificate, a valid credential if you will,” he said. “It’s not an easy test by any stretch of the imagination. It does do a good job of measuring what a high school graduate should know.”

Prior research on the topic has been inconsistent or scattered, and while it may seem contradictory for an educator to support alternative means than the traditional high school setting, Meeker, who is now the principal of the discipline alternative campus in Conroe, said some simply don’t have other options.

“It is our primary goal to ensure students get a high school diploma, to walk across the stage, to have that experience, and there’s nothing that can compare with that,” he said. “But in facing the reality of the lives some students have and the situations that they find themselves in—sometimes of their own making, but not always, sometimes it’s circumstances beyond their control—I recognize that for many, it is a good option, it is the best option for them to choose so they can move on with their life.

“If a person is 18, 19 years old, and only has nine credits toward graduation, it’s not real likely that they are going to stay and finish,” he said. “I run into a lot of kids who have made some real poor choices, but I have also seen that sometimes they haven’t had much of a chance to make better choices based on the environment that they grew up in.”

Meeker testified before the Texas Legislature three years ago in the midst of his research. While he said he didn’t seem to make a difference then, he hopes as times change, legislators will discover again that the state has too many dropouts and that “we do need help.”

“Because of federal legislation with No Child Left Behind and the accountability that public schools face, high school dropouts is a very important topic with today's schools,” said Stacey Edmonson, Meeker’s dissertation adviser and associate professor in the educational leadership and counseling department. “There have been studies regarding numbers of dropouts and other similar issues, but nothing qualitative that really focused on the student-based stories of why these students were unsuccessful in school.

“Thus, these findings could have implications for schools to help retain students who might otherwise drop out,” she said. “Again, because of accountability issues - not to mention the fact that persons with high school diplomas are more likely to be a productive part of the workforce and economy - this type of study could have far-reaching implications for policy-making and decision-making at both local and state levels.”

A copy of the dissertation is currently in the Newton Gresham Library, and the two are in the process trying to publish some of the book’s findings before the end of the year.

In addition, Edmonson and Meeker will present part of the research at the annual conference of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration later in the year.




SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Feb. 23, 2006
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