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High school dropouts in New York State are among the least likely in the United States to earn their general equivalency diploma, according to a study released today.

Only one other state -- New Jersey -- and the District of Columbia had a lower passing rate on the GED in 2002, the most recent year for which information is available.

That marks the third year in a row that the Empire State was among the four states with the lowest success rates on the GED, according to a Buffalo News analysis of data from several recent years.

Delaware, Iowa, Wyoming and Nebraska reported the highest passing rates in 2002.

A New York State spokesman declined to comment until the Education Department reviews a copy of the report.

New Yorkers' success on the GED hasn't always been dismal. A decade ago, New York ranked 12th among the states, according to the News analysis, with a 69 percent passing rate.

That dropped to 54 percent in 2002, compared to 96 percent in Delaware.

The report also highlighted a drastic drop in the number of people taking the test compared to the year before -- a decline of about 40 percent, both in New York and nationally. About 47,000 people took the GED in New York; nationally, 603,000 took it. The national passing rate remained about the same as the year before, about 60 percent.

Joan Chikos Auchter, executive director of the GED Testing Service, which released the report, attributed much of the drop to the changes in the format of the test that were made in 2002. The test now emphasizes "higher-order thinking," she said.

The decline in participation "is not troubling, because we can predict it," she said.

Each time the test was changed in the past, there was about a 5 percent drop in participation, Auchter said.

Officials acknowledged the larger-than-usual drop in the latest tally, but downplayed the significance of it and blamed it partly on a difference in how the most recent decline was tabulated.

People who run local GED programs say the Buffalo area actually seems to be bucking the trend, with more people taking the test now than in the past several years. There is no data detailing local participation rates.

"Our GED classes are growing. We're bursting out of our seams at the adult learning center," said Carol LeClair, who oversees the GED classes in Buffalo's adult education program.

A few years ago, the city offered GED prep courses twice a day. Now, she said, students can take classes in the morning, afternoon, late afternoon or evening. Saturday classes also are an option. For people who can't make it to the center, online and distance learning courses are available.

The city now services more than 6,000 students ultimately hoping to earn their GED. That's at least four times as many students as there were a few years ago, she said.

Darrell A. Slisz is the educational project director for Catholic Charities. He said as many as 450 students a year still go through their GED program. Tougher state graduation standards are pushing more teenagers out of school, he said.

The changes seem to have hit kids with special needs the hardest, he said.

"What we're seeing is a lot more special-education students entering programs such as ours," he said.


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