Adults Stranded Without a Credential: The High School Equivalency Emergency

Originally published by the New York Center for Urban Future

By Tom Hilliard
March 13, 2017

Here in New York, we’ve seen no shortage of big ideas in public education.

Whether it is Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to provide free CUNY and SUNY tuition to most families, or Mayor de Blasio ’s Computer Science for All program, or the spread of universal pre-kindergarten, promising ideas are cropping up everywhere.

Unfortunately, this creativity and passion do not extend to an area neglected for far too long: adult education. In particular, the state’s high school equivalency reaches fewer than 1% annually of the 1.6 million adults who lack a diploma — and those efforts are trending in the wrong direction.

With apologies to Frank Sinatra, to make it in New York in the 21st century, even a high school degree is rarely enough anymore. Yet over the past five years, the number of New Yorkers taking and passing the high school equivalency exam fell by almost half, from 25,139 to 14,369.

That’s a crisis in the making for tens of thousands of city residents who will miss out on the credential they need to escape poverty in years to come if nothing changes. It hurts New York’s employers, too, depriving them of the skilled workers who can help their businesses thrive.

When the Center for an Urban Future, where I work, began studying the rates at which New York students take and pass the high school equivalency exam, we expected to see some decline.

After all, the state Education Department made big changes in 2014, switching from the GED — the only equivalency test most New Yorkers know about — to a competitor, the Test Assessing Secondary Completion. Not only is the TASC harder than the GED, which drives down pass rates, but providers and local government agencies made a big push to get as many students as possible to take the GED in 2013 ahead of the deadline. That left fewer students to take the test in 2014.

But the declines we saw were jaw-dropping — and they did not get better the following year. Statewide, the share of New Yorkers earning high school equivalency credentials dropped 46% between 2010 and 2015, from 47,187 to 25,471. The statewide pass rate, already among the nation’s lowest, dropped even further, from 60% to 53%.

New York City is a major piece of this steep fall. More than half of all test-takers statewide live in New York City, and the city lags well behind upstate counties in getting students successfully to their TASC credential.

In 2015, just 46% of New York City residents who completed their equivalency exam passed it. New York City is home to the four counties with the lowest pass rates: The Bronx (40%), Staten Island (44%), Queens (46%) and Brooklyn (47%). Manhattan squeaked ahead of Westchester for sixth worst (51%).

These numbers impact real people. In the Bronx, the number of residents who obtained a high school equivalency credential slipped by 60% between 2010 and 2015, to 894. For them and so many others, it is nearly impossible to find a family-sustaining job.

Obtaining high school equivalency, of course, is no guarantee of an upwardly mobile career. But without it, forget it.