What Does the GED® Test Measure?

You’re not alone! More than 39 million American adults have no high school diploma. And earning a diploma means better jobs and college are possible! Those with a high school diploma earn more money, about $350,000 more in a lifetime. So how do you get there?

If you’re reading this article, you know the answer: a high school equivalency (HSE) diploma. And your diploma is within reach. To earn your credential, you can take one of two tests, depending on your state: the GED test or the HiSET exam.

Skills on the HSE Tests

The three HSE tests have many similarities. After all, they’re all meant to measure the same thing: Do you have the skills expected from a high school graduate? Think about that. Why do employers want a high school diploma? They don’t really care about a piece of paper. They care about what it represents: skills. Skills that are useful in the workplace! The skills an HSE exam measures are valuable ones:

  • Reading and writing to communicate
  • Mathematics
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluation and judgment
  • Information processing

Employers, colleges, and vocational schools value and demand these skills. They show that you have the foundations to do well in your classes or career.

The good news is that it’s easier to build up your thinking skills than to memorize a lot of facts and details.

What’s Measured in Each Subject?

Both HSE test has four to five subtests. The HiSET exam has tests in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. The GED test combines the reading and writing portion into one test, called Reasoning Through Language Arts (RLA).

The math test covers basic math concepts as well as algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability. Although math tests very specific number skills which are useful in the workplace and in school, it still emphasizes critical thinking. You’ll need to understand the reasoning behind the math, and you’ll need to apply it to problems.

The writing test also emphasizes critical thinking. In addition to basic language skills, you’ll need to focus on building an argument with evidence. That’s what you’ll do in the essay portion: read passages and write about them using evidence. That requires skills in analyzing and evaluating in addition to communicating.

The reading, science, and social studies tests have a strong emphasis on reading and critical thinking. These are the most important skills that the exam measures. Most test questions are not focused on knowledge of facts. Instead, many questions measure your ability to carefully think through a problem and use reasoning to come to a correct answer.

In reading, science, and social studies, you’ll usually have a passage, photograph, cartoon, chart, graph, map, or diagram that gives you information. First, you need to understand it. Then, you’ll use critical thinking, problem-solving, evaluation, and analysis skills to answer the question. You need some fundamental knowledge of language, science, and social studies, but the most important skills are thinking skills.

Because thinking skills can be applied to any discipline or workplace, these are the most crucial skills for any adult to master. This is good news for the test-taker. It means that studying for, and passing, the test doesn't need to involve memorizing four years' worth of high school textbooks. Instead, test-takers can focus their learning on essential skills. It's also good news for employers. The ACE states that many employers find that they “get a more educated, more committed workforce” by hiring GED test graduates.

Critical Thinking Skills

Consider how standard high school classes and courses work. Over weeks and months, a student covers lots of information. While quizzes and classwork show how well a student is progressing, the most important tests are the mid-term and final exam. Students who have a tough time with memorization may not score well, especially if weeks have passed since the information was covered.

Also, many students find it hard to learn and remember information that doesn't seem important or practical to their lives. For example, a history or social studies test may require that the student remember the date the Magna Carta was signed. The correct answer may not seem relevant to real-life; still, the answer could make the difference between pass or fail.

An HSE test measures knowledge differently. Like high school, it addresses science, social studies, math, reading, and writing. But it doesn’t measure memory. It measures the use and application of knowledge.

Consider the Magna Carta again, as it would be presented on the GED test.

Sample Passage:
Signed in 1215 in England, this document, coined the Great Charter, was developed by English nobles. The nobles compelled King John to execute the Magna Carta as a means to recognize the rights of noblemen and common Englishmen. It established the principle that no one, including the king or a lawmaker, is above the law. The Magna Carta marked a turning point in preventing tyrannical rule and anarchy. It also marked a turning point in political history and is considered the first step in the process toward constitutional law.

So what are some sample practice questions for this passage? One question might ask for the date the Charter was executed. This question measures your ability to get information from what you read. The answer is in the first sentence of the sample passage.

Other questions might stress thinking skills and the ability to make conclusions, asking what "tyrannical rule" or "anarchy" mean in the passage, or to define the meaning of the phrase "above the law." The test is also designed to measure judgment—the ability to apply significant information to a different situation. So you may also see a question on how the Magna Carta is comparable or relevant to a recent civil rights event.

For some people, especially those who relied on memorization skills in their education, HSE testing can seem more difficult than high school. For people who haven’t had much experience in making inferences, analyzing data, and making judgments from information, the test can seem difficult. But fortunately, good preparation can easily help you build the skills you need.

Preparing for an HSE Exam

Test prep is the most important component in passing a high school equivalency test. You’re starting in the right place! You’re learning about the HSE exam and what to expect.

Next, get more information and develop a study plan. Try a free online practice test to get some practice with questions in each subject, find out in more detail what’s on the test, and make a study plan of what you need to learn.

Once you know what to study, finding the right study program is the key. A wide variety of study programs are available. You can study from a guide book, take a low-cost or free class at an adult learning center, study in a workplace program, or find a local community college program.

The best preparation is often a GED or HiSET, online course. The best online programs are easily customized to the student's needs, address different learning styles in an accessible way, and allow students to learn at their own pace. Wherever you study, look for a program that emphasizes critical thinking and explaining concepts over memorization. Remember: understanding and thinking are the most important skills for the test.

As you look for test preparation, be wary of any program that claims to award an "online GED certificate" or a high school diploma through a quick online test. Third-party testing is not valid and is illegal in most states. Make sure you are registering directly through your state's testing service to ensure your test scores will be valid and accredited.

Earning a high school equivalency diploma from your state is a fantastic goal. It can help your career and give you the opportunity for college. And it doesn’t have to be hard. If you focus on the skills the test measures, passing can be fast, easy, and simple.


Carmen Morales, Educator


GED Information