America may have pioneered universal compulsory education and fostered one of the world’s most admired networks of public universities.
But frustration with the performance of its schools is a constant concern.
And the fact that nearly one in every six students fails to graduate from high school provides glaring evidence of the wide gaps in the system.
Since World War II, when military veterans returned to civilian life without diplomas, high-school dropouts have been offered an alternative credential – the General Educational Development, or GED degree.
But it’s never been regarded as a substitute for completing high school.
The US military, for example, rejects nearly all enlistment applicants who’ve dropped out of high school, including GED holders.
So in 2014 the GED examination is getting a serious upgrade.
The private company which runs the tests says it will be more closely attuned to the practical knowledge required by employers.
And for the first time, the exam may only be taken by computer, which in itself poses a challenge to many low-skilled test takers who are well into middle age.
At the Academy of Hope, a Washington DC preparatory school for GED takers, the administrators have a measured view of the new test.
They know that many of their students hope to go on to university yet only a small share of GED holders actually advance that far.
With the test becoming even tougher, says the Academy’s founder, Maria Hilfiker, “now the bar is raised again to another level for a seamless college transition. (But) our students are not there – and are not likely to get there.”
Nevertheless, the GED offers a gateway to economic security that a good education can provide striving families.
But the odds are still daunting.
Back in 1966 a famed government study called the Coleman Report examined the prime ingredients for academic success in US schools.
After analysing 600,000 students in 4,000 schools it concluded that more spending per pupil and racial integration weren’t the biggest predictors of achievement.
What was? The socioeconomic status of a child’s family.
Nearly half a century later, international surveys indicate that in America, low-literacy parents limit their children’s prospects more than in any other advanced industrial country.
As the Academy’s director Lecester Johnson puts it: “If a child goes home to a parent who has low literacy skills they’re not going to get the support, and it’s pretty tough to do educational reform without support from them.”