GED 21st Century Learning Pathways Pilots


Too many of the nation’s young adults struggle to obtain the educational credentials needed to be successful, productive members of society. When this study was under way, 39 million adults in the United States lacked a high school diploma or its equivalent; moreover, every year, more than 1.3 million students dropped out of high school. Roughly two-thirds of them eventually obtained a high school equivalency credential like the General Educational Development (GED) certificate, with the hope of then obtaining a job. However, policymakers and educators questioned the value of the GED credential, noting that few GED recipients succeeded in college or had strong labor market performance compared with traditional high school graduates. As a result, the American Council on Education, the original developers of the GED test, partnered with Pearson, Inc., to develop a new more rigorous GED, released in January 2014. They hoped the test would evolve into an enhanced educational platform that provided accelerated learning opportunities for high school dropouts and fostered links to postsecondary education.

While the new test was being developed, MDRC created the Learning Pathways Pilots project in collaboration with the American Council on Education and the New York City Department of Education’s District 79 - Alternative Schools and Programs (District 79) and Office for Continuing and Adult Education (OACE), with financial support from the MetLife Foundation. The goal of project was to pilot test and accelerate learning approaches in District 79 and OACE classrooms that would better prepare students to take the more rigorous 2014 GED exam and, ultimately, improve their chances of success in college and careers.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The GED 21st Century Learning Pathways Pilots project explored how writing and math curricula — The Writer’s Express and EMPower, respectively — were implemented in adult and young adult GED classrooms. It examined the successes and challenges associated with implementing the curricula and related professional development, and provided an overview of trends in student outcomes.

The main research questions were:

  • How were the Writer’s Express writing curriculum and EMPower math curriculum implemented in District 79 and OACE classrooms?

  • How did students, teachers, and administrators respond to these curricula?

  • Qualitatively, did the curricula appear to improve students’ writing and math skills? Why or why not?

  • What were the participation and achievement trends for students being taught under these curricula?

To answer these questions, MDRC visited classrooms during the 2012-2013 school year and spoke with teachers and administrators about their experiences with the two curricula, and about the training and support they had received. MDRC also collected data on students, including demographics, participation rates, and success rates as measured by the Tests of Adult Basic Education and the Official Practice Test for the GED.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The GED 21st Century Learning Pathway Pilots focused on the implementation of new writing curricula (based on The Writer’s Express) and math curricula (based on EMPower) in dozens of District 79 and OACE classrooms. These curricula represented a promising revision of standard adult education and GED instruction, which had traditionally been highly idiosyncratic, based on commercial test-preparation materials, and variable from day to day, given the often transient student population. In contrast, the Learning Pathways Pilots project focused on adapting The Writer’s Express and EMPower into a sequenced set of multiweek lessons that aligned with the Common Core State Standards. When necessary, lessons were also adapted to be appropriate for an adult audience. The Writer’s Express writing curriculum was first introduced into District 79 classrooms in 2011 and into OACE classrooms in 2012. The math curriculum was mainly used in OACE classes during the 2012-2013 academic year.

MDRC’s evaluation of the implementation of these curricula spanned two years, from fall 2011 to spring 2013. During this time, MDRC conducted interviews and focus groups with instructors, administrators, and students across OACE and District 79. MDRC also observed training events designed to prepare teachers to use the curricula.

MDRC also collected administrative data from both District 79 and OACE on students’ participation in the pilot project, including their background demographics, attendance, persistence in the program, GED certification, and skill levels as measured by the Tests of Adult Basic Education.

A report on the findings from the project [GED 21st Century Learning Pathways Pilots: Final Report] was released in September 2014. Overall, the study found that The Writer’s Express and EMPower curricula were implemented widely in District 79 and OACE classrooms and that teachers, administrators, and students found value in their content. However, a number of challenges also arose in implementing the curricula, which ultimately meant students received relatively few lessons that matched the curricular models. Student outcome trends also indicated that students who learned in classrooms implementing The Writer’s Express and EMPower had similar outcomes as students who studied under different curricula.

This project ended in September 2014.