High School Certificate Program Overviews

Adults who did not graduate from high school can still earn a diploma that will increase their job options and open the door to a college education. Several different types of programs provide a pathway to a high school diploma or equivalency certificate for adult learners.

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High School Diploma Options

Adult learners can now choose among a number of different programs to earn a high school diploma. Although all diploma options require a similar set of skills, each program has different advantages for students who may be busy with jobs and families.

Students typically need to be at least 18 or 19 years old and a citizen or permanent resident of the United States in order to enroll in an adult diploma program. Credits required for graduation vary by state, but are typically around 22 units.

The minimum age to sit for a high school equivalency exam is usually 16, provided applicants are withdrawn from school and meet any other state requirements. Passing scores vary by test.

The following programs are the most common and widely-available options for adults interested in earning a high school diploma or certificate:

High School Equivalency Exams

Many adult learners choose to earn a high school equivalency diploma or certificate by taking their state's equivalency exam. In the past, the General Education Development or GED exam was a national high school equivalency test. However, more than a dozen states have replaced the GED with the HiSET exam or the TASC test and some states now offer a choice of two or three different tests.

All three equivalency exams are roughly seven hours long, and are made up of individual tests on math, language arts, science, and social studies. The GED, HiSET, and TASC exams all require diploma candidates to read and analyze different types of literary and informational texts and to interpret scientific and social studies-related information from maps, graphs, and diagrams. All three tests also include questions that ask test takers to revise written selections and correct grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors and each of the tests requires an original essay. The three exams also have similar math tests with problems that cover different topics in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.

Most adult education centers offer classes and study materials for anyone preparing to take a high school equivalency exam. Adult learners can also find online study resources and practice tests and print versions of workbooks to prep for an exam.

The minimum passing score for each test is as follows:

  • GED: 145 points on each of four subtests
  • TASC: 500 points on each of five subtests and 2 out of 8 points on the writing prompt
  • HiSET: 8 points on each of five subtests and 2 out of 6 points on the essay

Adult High Schools

The benefits of a GED, HiSET, or TASC equivalency certificate are often time and cost, but adults returning to pursue an education may also enroll in an adult high school program that offers a more in-depth, traditional style of learning.

Many states have adult high school programs that allow adult learners to earn the credits needed to graduate. For most programs, students can apply any credits earned while in high school toward a diploma. While adult high school programs vary, in most cases students work independently to earn credits by completing coursework and taking online courses and classes. Some states also require adult high school students to pass standardized state assessment tests required for high school graduation.

Online High Schools

Adult learners can now enroll in a growing number of accredited online high schools to earn a diploma. These diploma programs are similar to adult high schools and generally allow students to transfer any credits they have already earned and apply them toward a diploma. Coursework is completed online and any required tests are taken at approved testing centers located near students. Online high schools, especially those that are managed by colleges and universities, tend to offer more choices for elective courses needed to fulfill diploma credit requirements. However, they do charge tuition which can be significantly more than a local adult high school program or the cost of taking an equivalency exam.

Career Online High Schools

The Career Online High School program offers students the opportunity to earn both a diploma and a career certificate in one of several different fields such as childcare, homeland security, or food service. The program, which is now being offered through a growing number of public libraries, requires students to earn 18 credits including four career credits. Students taken an initial assessment test and then work at their own pace with an academic coach to complete online coursework which includes live online seminars. In many locations, the Career Online High School program is free to local residents.

The National External Diploma Program

The National External Diploma Program lets adults use their work and life experiences to earn credits for a high school diploma. The program requires participants to demonstrate skills and knowledge in ten different required areas such as reading, writing, math, health, financial literacy, and civics. Students work with an academic mentor or supervisor to create portfolios that use their individual skills and experiences to demonstrate academic knowledge and abilities. The NEDP is currently available in Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Indiana, California, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia.

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