The Devil is in the Details: Evidence from the GED on the Role of Examination System Details in Determining Who Passes

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As part of standards-based educational reform efforts, more than 40 states will soon require students to achieve passing scores on standardized exams in order to obtain a high school diploma. Currently, many states struggle with the design of their examination systems, debating such questions as the number of subjects to be tested and the rules regarding opportunities for students to re-take the examinations. There is, however, little systematic information on the impact alternative options would have on the number of students who will meet the standards for a high school diploma. Nor is much known about whether particular design options will have greater impacts on some students, such as students of color, than on other students.

In this paper we use data from a long-standing examination system, the General Educational Development (GED) certificate, to illustrate that the details of examination systems have marked impacts not only on the number of test takers who obtain the desired credential, but also on the racial/ethnic composition of passers. While the examination systems currently in place or being studied in K-12 systems across the nation are relatively new, the GED testing system has been in place since the 1940s. The stability and acceptance of this national examination system make it a unique and important vehicle for studying how the details of an examination system matter in who and how many ultimately pass.



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