High school equivalency exams are designed for individuals 16 years of age and older who are not in school and no longer eligible to attend high school. These tests give youth and adults the opportunity to demonstrate they possess a level of knowledge and skills equivalent to what is required to earn a high school diploma. If a student passes the test, they earn a state-issued high school equivalency credential, which is necessary to qualify for an increasing majority of jobs in the United States and a prerequisite for enrolling in postsecondary training and education.

The most well-known high school equivalency exam is The General Educational Development exam, commonly referred to as the GED. You probably recognize the name. The GED has been around for decades and is nearly synonymous with "high school equivalency exam". That's because, until 2014, the GED was the only high school equivalency exam approved for issuing a high school equivalency credential. However, beginning in 2014, states have been allowed to offer up to three different options for high school equivalency tests.1 These new high school equivalency exams include HiSET and TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion), among others.

Also in 2014, the GED underwent a profound redesign; it was reworked to comply with more rigorous Common Core State Standards. The redesign had a swift and dramatic effect, greatly reducing the number of students successfully taking and passing the exam. Before the 2014 redesign, roughly 500,000 Americans passed the GED each year.2 After the changes went into effect in 2014, only 55,000 people nationwide passed the test, a 90 percent decline. 2

High School equivalency exams aren't the best approach for everyone. And that's OK.

The effect of the GED redesign underscores the fact that, for many students, studying to pass a high school equivalency exam is not well suited to their learning style. Fortunately, there are options less focused on the idea of passing a high-stakes test. An accessible alternative is an online high school diploma program. Online high school diploma programs share many of the benefits of a high school equivalency exam. Both are self-paced, allowing the learner to progress through content and study materials at a pace that suits them; and, both equip students with a tangible credential (either a high school diploma or an equivalency credential) that qualifies them for job opportunities and postsecondary training. However, the online high school diploma program comes without the stress and risk of a high-stakes, all-or-nothing exam.

For adults, going back to school to earn a college degree or a career certificate in an online or blended learning environment has become commonplace. Many people do not realize the same option exists for individuals that did not graduate from high school. Those pursuing the online high school diploma option often find the active learning approach intrinsic to completing lessons and progressing through content helps them better learn and internalize skills and competencies. This serves them well throughout their lives. Instead of learning how to pass a test, participants in online high school diploma programs learn how to learn and take more away from the lessons than they would referencing a study guide for a standardized test.

Four characteristics to look for in an online high school diploma program

1) Innovative, competency-based learning platform

There is technology available to enrich and simplify nearly every aspect of our lives. The same should be true for learning. An online high school diploma program needs to be accessed by an intuitive, competency-based learning platform, with interactive tools that provide students with real-time feedback, and with dashboards and competency tracking tools that give instructors and program administrators personalized insights into the performance and progress of each student.

2) Option of a blended learning environment

Does the provider offer their high school diploma program with a blended learning environment in addition to an online option? High school diploma programs providing instruction with a robust online learning platform augmented with in person settings are the often the most effective, allowing the program to tailor instruction to the specific needs of students.

Many think an online high school diploma program is a one size fits all approach; but, when done right, they provide the best of both worlds: the innovation, engagement, progression tracking and reporting of an online platform and the individualized support provided by personal interaction in a classroom setting. Look for a high school diploma solution where program administrators and teachers can fine-tune the program as they see fit. For example, does it allow administrators to establish rules that define how quickly a student can progress through the program? Can administrators create settings that require different types of learning activities to be completed (self-checks, content views, etc.) before attempting a test or completing a lesson?

3) Robust Academic Support

Academic support is essential to student success. An online high school diploma program should have a robust, on-demand academic support team ready to answer student questions. Some high school diploma platforms even have "Help" features embedded into the learning portal that provide feedback on practice quizzes and self-checks in real time. For example, if a student answers a question incorrectly, they are immediately informed on the correct answer given an explanation, helping to reinforce the concept and correct logic. In addition to extensive academic support, identify an online high school diploma program with social learning elements, i.e. does the provider have a community portal students can use as a forum to discuss and share thoughts on the topics they're studying? Do they provide success coaches to work with students on a personal level, assisting them in setting and sticking to goals and motivating them to stay on track?

4) Regional and National Accreditation

It is imperative that you select an online high school diploma program that holds both regional and national accreditation. Accrediting bodies set the standards for academic integrity, rigor, and program execution. If a school is nationally and regionally accredited, then you can have confidence that they are providing a well-regarded program that is meeting a scrupulous set of standards. 

Recommended for you: The New GED: One Year Later

Resources: Photo Credit. (1) What is a high school equivalency? (2) Nearly 500,000 Fewer Americans Will Pass the GED in 2014 After a Major Overhaul to the Test. Why? And Who's Left Behind?