Test allows adults (10 million so far) to earn equivalent of high school diploma

ALICE BAHAROIAN always dreamed of growing up to be one of two things -- a nurse or an Army sergeant. But then she got pregnant. At the end of the eighth grade, she left school and her dream behind. Today, five children and nearly 40 years later, Mrs. Baharoian thinks she'd still like to be a nurse -- and she's taking the first step toward getting there. Just last month, she began studying for her General Education Development credential, or GED -- the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Education is ``like gold,'' Baharoian says. ``Without an education, you can't get but so far. I feel like I have a lot to offer, even now. . . . By the help of God, I'm trying.''

Some 10 million people -- including well-known Americans like Bill Cosby -- have already traveled the road that Baharoian is just starting. Begun in 1942 to help GIs reenter the education mainstream, the GED program has become an alternative for individuals who, for a wide variety of reasons, never managed to finish high school.

``It's a chance to bounce back,'' says Verne A. Duncan, Oregon's state superintendent of public instruction. ``It's an extra shot for people to move on academically.

``It used to be if you were an eighth grade or 10th grade dropout, that's what you were for the rest of your life,'' says Mr. Duncan, who chairs a special commission for the American Council on Education, which coordinates GED programs in the United States and Canada. ``A GED gives people an opportunity to move forward.''

The GED is a highly decentralized program. Although the council develops and distributes the five multiple-choice tests required for a GED credential -- social studies, science, reading, English, and math -- the tests are administered and graded locally. Each state or province sets certain requirements, such as age, residency, and minimum scores for passing the tests.

Individuals, in turn, are free to simply walk in and take the test at one of some 3,000 centers around the country. Some choose to study books similar to those available for people preparing to take college entrance examinations. Others take advantage of free adult-education classes offered all over the country -- often through public school systems -- which are specifically designed to help students pass the General Education Development tests.

Unlike a traditional classroom, GED classes are tailored to an individual's educational needs, so that each person progresses at his or her own pace.

``There is no typical GED test taker,'' says Douglas Whitney, director of the council's GED Testing Service. ``The statistical average age is 25, but the ages actually range from 16-year-olds to 90-year-olds.''

At the Adult Learning Center at the Grover Cleveland School in Boston, where Baharoian is studying five days a week, students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, according to James Hughes, director of the center. They include Haitians, Cape Verdeans, handicapped people, teen-agers, housewives, and middle-aged dock workers who lost their jobs when a nearby shipyard closed down.

There is at least one thing that all these students have in common, however -- an intense desire to learn.

``Most of these people are here because they want to be here,'' says Gail McDonald, who has been teaching adult-education classes in the Boston public school system since 1968. ``They're really motivated to learn. That's the wonderful part of working with adults.''

Westin Roach has been studying at the Adult Learning Center for about two years -- coming to study whenever he can get time away from his job as a captain at a hotel restaurant.

Mr. Roach never got to finish school at home in Barbados; he had to quit to help the family when his father died.

Roach always felt, though, that his education was lacking -- and now that he has two young sons of his own, he has decided it's time to get his GED so that he'll be able to help them with their homework when they start school. `If you don't have an education, you're lost'

``I love this program,'' he says. ``We all know what we're here for. . . . If you don't have an education, you're lost.''

According to Mr. Whitney of the GED Testing Service, from 700,000 to 800,000 people take the GED test each year, and about 400,000 to 450,000 pass. To put it another way, for every six students who receive a regular high school diploma each year, one person earns a diploma through GED.

Although the five GED tests cover a more limited academic range than most high school curricula, Whitney says statistics show that 30 percent of all high school graduates would fail the GED tests. `I felt it would be an achievement'

The GED Testing Service says, moreover, that about 95 percent of colleges and universities admit a successful GED candidate on the same basis as a conventional high school graduate. An estimated 95 percent -- or more -- of all businesses give equal status to a GED holder in hiring practices as well.

What cannot be quantified, however, is the sense of personal pride and accomplishment that many GED students take in finishing schooling that, in some cases, has been left unfinished for decades.

``I look back and feel that a lot of my life was a waste,'' says Baharoian. ``I feel I could have accomplished more, gone further if I had acquired an education.

``I felt it would be an achievement, a personal achievement,'' she explains, ``if I could get my GED. . . . My mind is made up that this is what I want to do.''

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