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November 21 , 2009

The Myth of Achievement Tests

The GED and the Role of Character in American Life


Achievement tests play an important role in modern societies. They are used to evaluate schools, to assign students to tracks within schools, and to identify weaknesses in student knowledge. The GED is an achievement test used to grant the status of high school graduate to anyone who passes it. GED recipients currently account for 12 percent of all high school credentials issued each year in the United States. But do achievement tests predict success in life?

The Myth of Achievement Tests shows that achievement tests like the GED fail to measure important life skills. James J. Heckman, John Eric Humphries, Tim Kautz, and a group of scholars offer an in-depth exploration of how the GED came to be used throughout the United States and why our reliance on it is dangerous. Drawing on decades of research, the authors show that, while GED recipients score as well on achievement tests as high school graduates who do not enroll in college, high school graduates vastly outperform GED recipients in terms of their earnings, employment opportunities, educational attainment, and health. The authors show that the differences in success between GED recipients and high school graduates are driven by character skills. Achievement tests like the GED do not adequately capture character skills like conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, and curiosity. These skills are important in predicting a variety of life outcomes. They can be measured, and they can be taught.
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Using the GED as a case study, the authors explore what achievement tests miss and show the dangers of an educational system based on them. They call for a return to an emphasis on character in our schools, our systems of accountability, and our national dialogue.

Eric Grodsky, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Andrew Halpern-Manners, Indiana University Bloomington
Paul A. LaFontaine, Federal Communications Commission
Janice H. Laurence, Temple University
Lois M. Quinn, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Pedro L. Rodríguez, Institute of Advanced Studies in Administration
John Robert Warren, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
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