Difference Between a High School Diploma & a GED

by E. Anne Hunter

    The common educational path for the average American is to complete elementary school and secondary school, graduating around age 18 with a high school diploma. However, due to family obligations or other life challenges, not all students complete high school. The General Education Development exam serves as a nationally recognized high school equivalency credential. Adults without high school diplomas can use a passing score on the GED to assist in applying to college or searching for work. Although the GED assesses high school academic skills, there are a number of important differences between a high school diploma and a GED, including how they are completed and recognized.

    Age

    Though adult high school completion programs are available, a high school diploma is typically achieved during the teenage years via four years of attendance at a public or private secondary school or home school. The GED can be taken at age 16 or above, and more than 50 percent of those who pass are beyond the typical high school graduation age.

    Completion

    High school graduation requirements are set by individual states and may include a minimum number of courses and subject areas, standardized testing or other examinations, attendance standards and other obligations. The GED requires only a passing score on the exam, which for most states is an average score of 450 or higher across the exam’s five subject areas and a 410 or higher in each of those subject areas. The state in which the test was taken then issues the test-taker a GED diploma or similar document.

    Scoring and Ranking

    High school students are graded and ranked throughout their attendance with indicators like class rank and the grade point average representing overall academic achievement. The GED Testing Service does not attempt to compare test scores to high school GPAs but does provide percentile ranks with its scores to give test-takers an indication of their would-be class rank in high school.
    The GED Testing Service provides a table to help test-takers determine their high school class rank equivalency. An average of 530 across the five subject areas in the exam, for example, represents a top 25 percent class rank. The minimum passing average of 450 aligns to a top 60 percent class rank.

    Subject Matter

    High school students take required coursework in many academic topics including reading, writing, social studies, math and science. These same areas are covered in the GED exams five subject-area tests. However, schoolwork in high school includes many more subject areas, some mandatory and some elective. Students may -- and in many cases must -- take coursework in art or music, physical education, foreign language and other areas to build well-rounded skill sets and to meet state graduation requirements.

    Recognition

    Colleges and universities require high school completion as a prerequisite to attendance, and most will accept a GED to represent high school equivalency. However, GED exams are not typically allowed in lieu of entrance exams or standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT that are often taken in high school. GED students may, therefore, need to take additional exams to enter college. Employers that do not require college degrees may require a high school diploma. For some employers, such as in labor industries, a GED is seen as the equivalent of a diploma. However, according to education author Mary Frost, some employers see the GED as a negative compared to a diploma, indicating lack of ability to complete a program. It can behoove GED takers to complete some college classes or build strong work experience to demonstrate commitment and the ability to follow through.

    About the Author

    E. Anne Hunter has more than a decade of experience in education, with a focus on visual design and instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in education. Hunter has contributed to several professional publications, covering education, design, music and fitness, among other topics.

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