MY BROTHER Michael didn't see the point of reading Shakespeare in high school. Hamlet and Othello were written to be performed on stage, not picked apart in a classroom, he said.
During the last semester of his senior year, he dropped out of high school. A few months later, he passed the high school equivalency test and in the roughly 10 years since has climbed steadily up the corporate ladder with a few college courses on his resume but no degree.
More than 860,000 people will take the General Educational Development test this year, according to the General Educational Development Service, the branch of the American Council on Education that manages the tests.
More than a third of those who take the GED each year are 16 to 19 years old. The seven-hour test, usually taken over two days, covers writing, reading comprehension, social studies, science and mathematics. In 2002, 74 percent of those who took the test passed it.
The GED was created to help World War II veterans earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. Today many educators view it as the next best thing to earning a high school diploma. Employers also tend to see it this way.
A search on the Web site Monster.com brought up 237 job openings in the Chicago area for positions that required a high school diploma, ranging from store manager to radiology technician. One hundred of those positions also were open to applicants who passed the GED.
Most employers who say they are looking for someone with a high school diploma also will consider GED candidates, said Marcel Legrand at Monster.com.
Young, white dropouts boosted their earning potential by 15 percent to 19 percent in the five years after they passed the GED compared with those with no high school diploma, according to a 2000 study by John Tyler at Brown University and Richard Murnane and John Willett at Harvard University.
Non-whites who passed the GED, however, had no noticeable improvement in their earning potential. One possible reason, according to the study's authors, is that a high percentage of African-Americans took their GEDs in prison, and employers may be reluctant to hire them, or they may be in prison five years after passing the test.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says a high school dropout's median salary is $396, but high school graduates earn $562 and college graduates $996. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics didn't break out salaries of GED holders.)
Like classes in public high schools, most GED prep classes are free, paid in large part by tax dollars.
The South Baltimore Learning Center's courses last 10 to 12 weeks and meet two times a week for three hours. Students range in age from 16 to 70. They come to the center because they want a job, an employer or parent insists they get a GED, or they are required to enroll in a GED program to receive government assistance, said Tracie Godfrey, the center's academic support counselor.
Nationwide, the number of GED test takers has increased almost every year and is up 27 percent from two decades ago.
This trend seems to be continuing, said John Sipple, an education professor at Cornell University, and may be in part due to pressure on high schools to reduce dropout rates. If students quit school but are steered into GED classes, they often aren't counted as dropouts.
E-mail Julie Diop at firstname.lastname@example.org.