How the GED Test Works

Keep hitting the books for the GED test. If you do, there's a good chance you'll pass. That was the case for nearly three out of four people who completed it in 2011.
Keep hitting the books for the GED test. If you do, there's a good chance you'll pass. That was the case for nearly three out of four people who completed it in 2011.

"A cook decides to recover some table salt that has been completely dissolved in water. [What] would be the most effective method of extracting salt from the solution?" [source: GED Testing Service].

A lot of us might see that question and say, "Aha! I learned that in high school science class." And that's what you might think triumphantly, at least, before you realize you have forgotten the answer.

But about 750,000 people in the U.S. annually answer questions like this to earn their GED certificate, the equivalent of a high school diploma [source: Sanchez]. The test itself has evolved from a terminus of schooling to a stepping-stone to higher education, and its content and application have changed as a result. In 2011, the average age of a GED test taker was a little over 26, and only 24 percent had been out of school for a year or less. On average, testers are about eight years out of school [source: GED Testing Service].

Contrary to what you might think, GED doesn't stand for "general equivalency diploma." Rather it stands for General Educational Development, and it's a brand. Which means that GED isn't like a baccalaureate degree or a simple designation of educational assessment. Technically, it's a branded battery of tests that a whole bunch of colleges and educational groups have decided will be a fine measure of a high school equivalency in four core areas of language, math, social studies and science. Of those who took the test in 2011, about 72 percent passed [source: GED Testing Service].

GED Testing Service used to be a nonprofit controlled solely by the American Council on Education (ACE), which is an organization that represents American institutes of higher learning, as well as some for-profit and nonprofit education entities. However, in 2011, Pearson Education (a for-profit education publishing company) teamed with ACE, in order to provide some revenue to revamp the test. We'll get to the controversy about the test suddenly having a for-profit model, but suffice it to say for now that Pearson's acquisition and subsequent decisions have proven divisive.

By the way, you have to boil the water to extract the salt. If you weren't sure, don't worry; most of the real GED test is multiple choice, apart from a few math questions.

World War II Spurs the GED

The GED test didn't come into existence so high school dropouts could get a leg up in the workforce, or to solve the pressing problem of how to get teenage pop stars out of high school classes for a world tour. The program was first established in 1942 so World War II veterans could efficiently finish high school and get a decent job in the civilian economy. In fact, it was only in 1947 that anyone outside the military could even take the test.

The test has gone through four iterations so far, with the latest taking place in 2002. A new one came out in 2014, but more on that later. The first set was the original 1942 series.

While the backbone has remained the same -- a focus on English language reading and writing, social studies, science and mathematics -- the tests have evolved. The 1942 series was evaluated traditionally. Basically, you had to read and correctly interpret content. At this point, the test was largely used to gain employment. Only 37 percent planned to continue study [source: GED Testing Service].

The organization revamped the tests in 1978. Instead of combining science and social studies with reading comprehension, it instituted a separate reading test and jettisoned traditional recall of content or facts. Test takers were asked to apply more conceptual evaluation, and now were presented with newspaper articles or examples from work or home life.

Another significant overhaul, designed to reflect a shift toward technological advancement and a more global outlook, occurred in 1988. An essay component made the cut, along with an emphasis on critical thinking skills. The tone shifted to accommodate the growing diversity of roles for adults, and takers were given more context to questions to better recognize themselves in the test. At this point, only 30 percent were taking the test for employment, while 60 percent of takers planned to continue on with post-secondary education after they passed the GED test [source: GED Testing Service].

The 2002 series was the last iteration and has been replaced by the 2014 assessment. Later, we'll explore how the 2014 series instated sweeping -- and controversial -- changes. But first, let's take a look at how the test itself works -- from prep to finish.

From Prepping to Passing: Taking the GED Test

We'll start like any good student: with serious prep. Of course, GED Testing Service offers "official" materials you can study and practice with, but they come at a pretty penny. Want a set of workbooks? It'll set you back about $20. What about an official online practice test? That's a hair under $40. Want a prep book and practice test? Almost $60. In other words, GED Testing Service is making some dough on a test taker's willingness to cram with "official" materials.

You probably have a few other questions that you need answered before you sit down to ace this exam, such as:

  • How old do you have to be?
  • How much does it cost?

Actually, it depends. GED test policy is regulated by state, so while Washington charges $75 for the test, Georgia charges $160. In Texas, you must be at least 18 to take the test, while in Missouri you can take it at 17. So check your state's regulations to make sure you meet requirements [source: GED Testing Service].

When you sit down for the test, you'll be completing five sections, plus an essay. (In some states, you have to complete all five in one sitting; in others you can take one section at a time.) If you do them all at once, you're in for a doozy: The entire battery takes seven hours and five minutes. The sections are:

  • Language arts and writing (75 minutes, 50 questions plus 45 minute essay)
  • Language arts and reading (65 minutes, 40 questions)
  • Science (90 minutes, 50 questions)
  • Mathematics (90 minutes, 50 questions)
  • Social studies (70 minutes, 50 questions)

As with almost all GED "rules," whether you can take it on a computer varies by state, but you can't just take it online at home: You must show up at an official testing station. And while there might be breaks between sections, especially after the essay section, use the restroom beforehand. Also, as long as we're acting like your parents, don't forget to eat a good breakfast that day.

For 2014, the GED Testing Service decided to eliminate all hard copy tests for the new battery and switched entirely to computers. The 2014 version was also designed to further "career and college-readiness skills," according to the GED Testing Service Web site.

It's Only Computer-based

The January 2014 test became quite different from past iterations and exclusively offered on a (official testing station) computer. While this may seem like a no-brainer leap into the 21st century, the change has brought a lot of controversy to the test itself, GED Testing Service and the companies behind the organization.

For years, the GED test has been the generic standard to achieve high school equivalency. But with the 2014 series, more and more states have questioned whether it's really the gold standard. That's come up for a couple of reasons: First is the computer issue. Critics point out that getting a GED certificate now entails not just studying for a test, but studying how to take the test. That is, not every GED-seeker will be familiar with computer use off the bat and might suffer for it when taking the test.

Second, the price of the test is being dramatically raised, from about $60 to at least $120. That's right; getting your high school equivalency isn't free. More to the point, many states subsidize part or all of the cost of the test, which means that it's not free to the states. If they can't afford it or don't want to pass the cost along to takers, they might just start sniffing around for an alternative to the GED test.

And just like that, a couple of rivals to GED Testing Service (McGraw-Hill and Educational Testing Service) began to offer cheaper ($50 or so) paper and pen high-school equivalency tests to states. (Remember, the GED is just a branded battery of comprehension tests; a state doesn't have to use the GED brand. They still will accept the validity of the GED, but just won't offer it to residents seeking their equivalency.)

GED Testing Service claims the price for the computer version will actually be cheaper; the states don't have to pay to grade the test, for one, and the organization also claims it offers more services within its base price than competitors do. However, 40 states and the District of Columbia are all looking into alternatives to the GED, and New York, Montana and New Hampshire have already made the switch [source: Hollingsworth].

Author's Note: How the GED Test Works

Because the GED test price is undergoing a dramatic price increase, it's important to remind prospective test takers that a plethora of free study resources can be found online or through community literacy organizations. A good first step? Go to the local library and ask a librarian for GED prep materials and resources.

Related Articles


  • Cramer, Philissa. "Eschewing Pearson, state goes back to McGraw-Hill for GED." March 7, 2013. (April 17, 2013)
  • GED Testing Service. "Website." American Council on Education and Pearson VUE. 2012. (April 17, 2013)
  • Hilburn, Jessica. Adult Literacy Program Coordinator. Whatcom Literacy Council. Personal correspondence. (April 21, 2013)
  • Hollingsworth, Heather. "Some states dropping GED as test price spikes." Associated Press. April 14, 2013. (April 17, 2013)
  • Orson, Diane. "Educators worry revamped GED will be too pricey." National Public Radio. Nov. 28, 2012. (April 17, 2013)
  • Sanchez, Claudio. "In today's economy, how far can a GED take you?" National Public Radio. Feb. 18, 2012. (April 17, 2013)
  • Vyse, Monty. "Why a privatized GED will fail students." Dec. 11, 2013. (April 17, 2013)