NORMA CORCUERA, a 32-year-old divorced mother of four, is a proud graduate of the high school class of 1991. A member of the quiet, uncelebrated part of each year's graduating class, Ms. Corcuera got her degree by passing the General Educational Development (GED) Test.
She was the District of Columbia's top-scoring GED recipient last year and now is studying nursing on scholarship at the University of the District of Columbia, while cleaning homes to support her family. Corcuera says that the GED was the only route she could see to keep from being "a slave" to welfare.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the GED, America's great second chance. Statistics show that it is a second chance Americans sorely need: High school diplomas are required in 90 percent of all United States jobs, but the high school dropout rate has remained steady at about 30 percent over the past decade.
Though not as well-known a route to a high school diploma as four years of classes capped by a mortarboard and gown, the GED has become a powerful part of the American education system, say education experts.
"There are few other options [to the GED] in this job market. It's almost impossible to go back to high school [once you've dropped out] in most states," says Hal Beder, a professor at Rutgers University's graduate school of education.
One out of every seven high school diplomas earned annually in the US is received through GED Tests, say officials at the American Council on Education (ACE), which runs the GED Testing Service.
The current economic recession is responsible for a marked increase in dropouts earning GED diplomas as a hedge against unemployment, says Susan Robinson, director of outreach at ACE's Center for Adult Learning. After a decade of decline in GED test-taking, there were increases of 14 percent in 1990 and 12 percent in 1991.
The GED, which is used in all 50 states, 10 Canadian provinces, and a growing number of other countries, is designed to measure what graduating high school seniors are expected to know in writing skills, social studies, science, literature and the arts, and mathematics.
To qualify for a diploma, adults taking the eight-hour test must score higher than 30 percent of a sampling of graduating high school seniors who take the test. Of the 806,000 people who took the test in 1991, 484,000 passed to earn a high school equivalency diploma.
The targets of GED testing and adult literacy in general, says Professor Beder, who specializes in adult education, are the 51 million people shown in US Census figures as high school dropouts. Currently, he says, GED testing and adult-education programs serve only about 7 percent of those eligible.
Much of educational debate - and research - focuses on students who stay in school or on the causes for academic failure. As a way of improving education, both for youths in school now and for drawing adults back, the ACE is conducting a long-term study of GED test-takers and the reasons they left school and never went back.
The most recent findings in the study, released in late July, showed that while marriage, pregnancy, and financial problems caused youths to leave school, the single biggest reason given (by nearly one in four) was "disengagement." These people reported thay they felt left out, that they didn't belong, that no one cared about them, and that they were bored in school.
"We're finding that there is an overlap of experiences before [a student] drops out that shapes attitudes and feelings about school [now]," says Janet Baldwin, assistant director for policy research at the GED Testing Service. Educators should heed that information in trying to build attachment and affiliation to learning in order to retain students already in school, she says.
But further, in trying to lure the large number of adult dropouts back to get a basic education, she says, it may be self-defeating to offer formal classes like the ones dropouts were trying to escape in the first place.