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History of the GED Tests

To date, there have been four generations of GED Tests; the original GED Tests released in 1942, the 1978 series, the 1988 series, and the current series released in 2002. While the academic content areas in which candidates are assessed—English language arts (literature/reading), social studies, science, and mathematics—have not changed, the priorities and assumptions by which proficiency in these areas is assessed have evolved. Since the GED Tests assess academic skills and knowledge typically developed in a four-year program of high school education, it is of utmost importance to the GED Testing Service that the GED Tests continue to evolve as secondary education evolves.

1942 Series

The first generation of tests, developed in 1942, reflected an industrial era, when a high school education was sufficient for many jobs. By the time this series was retired in 1977, more than 40 percent of test-takers took the tests for employment reasons—evidence that this level of education qualified people for many entry-level positions. During this period, 37 percent of test-takers indicated plans for further study. Content knowledge was assessed in a traditional manner. The English test focused on the correctness and effectiveness of expression, while success in social studies, science, and literature depended on interpreting reading material.

1978 Series

By the mid-1970s, the closing cusp of the industrial age, changes in secondary curricula and public attitudes toward education made necessary a review of the GED test specifications. As a result, a second generation of tests was introduced in 1978. This series was characterized by:

  • a shift in emphasis from science and social studies reading materials to a separate reading test
  • a transition away from recall of facts toward application of conceptual knowledge and evaluation of presented information

These tests retained an emphasis on high school outcomes, but introduced real-life contexts (such as work or home settings) and reading materials (schedules, newspaper articles) relevant to adults.

1988 Series

The release of John Naisbitt’s Megatrends in 1982 characterized a heightened awareness worldwide of the shift from an industrial to an information society—one characterized by a commonplace use of technology, global awareness, and participatory democracy. As these changes affected adults, the GED Testing Service initiated a five-year review that drew on the expertise of professionals from all sectors of adult education. Again affirming the GED Tests’ academic content areas, the panel recommended five changes:

  • addition of a direct writing sample (essay)
  • an increased emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • an increased reflection of the diverse roles adults play in society
  • greater emphasis on understanding the sources of societal change
  • an increase in contextual settings relevant to adults

In addition to the changes in the GED Tests, there was also a shift in candidates’ reasons for taking the tests. More than 65 percent of candidates said they are taking the tests for entry into postsecondary education, while 30 percent reported taking the tests for employment reasons.

2002 Series

Today, a high school diploma remains the primary ticket to many entry-level jobs. In many cases, it’s also the prerequisite for advancement in employment, occupational training, and postsecondary education. Change is indeed sweeping education and the workplace. Content standards developed at the national and jurisdictional level form the basis for the changes that are part of the 2002 Series GED Tests. A panel of experts representing the core academic disciplines of English-language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies proposed these changes. In keeping with the focus on adults who use the GED credential to gain entry both to the workplace and to postsecondary education in an information-based society, the panel recommended four enhancements to the current GED Tests.


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