The cognitive short-comings of potential enlistees represent a particular concern. In a high-tech military, you simply can't train someone on high tech weapons or information systems when they lack basic academic skills. And the problem seems to be growing worse, according to a new report by the Education Trust. Entitled Shut Out of the Military, the study analyzes five years of test scores from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Pouring over reams of data, researcher Christina Theokas discovered that one in five candidates who took the ASVAB failed to achieve the minimum score required to enter the U.S. Army.
At this point, some clarification is in order. The ASVAB, as its name implies, measures aptitude in a variety of areas, helping the military determine which recruits have skills that might be useful in specific jobs. Scores from the four academic sections of the ASVAB generate the AFQT score, which provides an overall measure of cognitive ability. It's the AFQT score that determines if a recruit gets in, and the type of technical training he or she qualifies for in their respective branch of service.
In terms of qualifying scores on the AFQT, each branch of the military has its own standards (listed below). The Army has the lowest; the Coast Guard has the highest.
Minimum Required AFQT Score by Service Branch
Marine Corps 32
Air Force 40
Coast Guard 45
We should also note that the AFQT is based on a 100-point scale. So, a prospective recruit can score below 50% and still meet cognitive standards for enlistment in any branch of the military--assuming they don't have other disqualifying issues. Indeed, none of the 350,000 young people in the study sample had those problems, so these young men (and women) were viewed as prime enlistment candidates--until some of them took the ASVAB.
It's a damning indictment of America's education system when 23% of those taking the ASVAB couldn't achieve a passing score for any branch of the military. And, as you dig into Ms. Theokas's work, the news grows steadily worse. Among her findings:
-- Everyone in the sample group had a high school diploma, and all graduated within three years of the time they sat for the ASVAB. So, the notion that these young people had been out of school for an extended period (and lost much of what they learned) really doesn't apply.
-- Failure rates for Hispanic and African-American youngsters were significantly higher than their white peers. Nationally, twenty-nine percent of Hispanics who took the test could not meet Army standards, while 39% of African-Americans failed to achieve the minimum score.
-- Ineligibility rates vary greatly from state-to-state. In Hawaii and Mississippi, the number of test-takers who couldn't meet minimum standards approaches 40%, and it's over 30% in Washington, D.C. and Louisiana. Figures for those southern states are hardly surprising, given long-standing problems with the education systems in Louisiana and Mississippi. But Hawaii ranks 28th in per-pupil spending ($7253 per year) and Washington D.C. spends more per child ($13,187) than any other state, federal district or territory. So the dismal AFQT scores for graduates of the D.C. system are not the result of under-funded schools. You could make a similar case for Hawaii, though many educators in that state would disagree.
-- High-school grads who can't pass the AFQT are equally unprepared for the civilian job market.
Another fact worth remembering: these are not the ASVAB takers of decades past, when local schools (in cooperation with military recruiters) would administer the test to the entire senior class. Under that approach, some students earned rock-bottom scores, because they had no interest in joining the military and didn't care about the results.
But all of the participants in this study took the exam at an armed forces recruiting station. In other words, these individuals were already disposed towards military service by their prior meeting(s) with recruiters and willingness to sit for the ASVAB.
So, their difficulties on the entrance exam represents a serious loss, both for the armed forces and society as a whole. The military impact is disturbing, even if you only consider the recruiting process. Based on the study results, we lost upwards of 80,000 potential recruits because they couldn't achieve minimum scores on the AFQT. That represents the Army's active-duty recruiting quota for one year, plus 10,000 additional recruits.
And because of high failure rates on the ASVAB/AFQT, the Army (along with the rest of the military) must spend more effort to find qualified volunteers in the 18-25 cohort, with additional costs for recruiting, marketing, advertising, evaluation and related functions. In an era of decreased resources for defense, that money might be better spent on new weapon systems, or higher bonuses for recruits who have already demonstrated their value to the military.
From a societal perspective, it means that the military is no longer a potential gateway to the middle class for thousands of lower-income youngsters. To be fair, social advancement has never been--nor should it ever be--a primary function for the armed forces. But it is also irrefutable that hundreds of thousands of lower-income whites, Hispanics and African-Americans have used their military training (and service) to acquire skills and expertise that led to a higher standard of living, more education and other opportunities. Without the required AFQT score, that option is effectively closed.
To its credit, the education trust doesn't suggest any dilution of the ASVAB. The test (and the AFQT score) are proven indicators of applicant skills and their cognitive abilities--crucial measurements in determining who should serve, and in what capacity. Clearly, the problem isn't with the test.
Additionally, the study's authors do not call for the military to lower its standards. Talk to any battalion, squadron or brigade commander (and their senior enlisted members) and they'll tell you: the armed forces simply can't train and inculcate soldiers, Marines, sailors or airmen who score below 30 on the AFQT. As commanders and senior NCOs, they need more junior troops who can master complex tasks quickly and act with initiative. From experience, they know that young enlisted members with lower AFQT scores will need more remedial training and supervision, placing another strain on the unit and its resources.
The real solution--obviously--lies with improving our educational system. But beyond suggestions for more spending, you won't find many politicians proposing serious reform programs. That's because it's much easier to promise more money, instead of tackling the tough issues like poor teachers, inadequate curricula, out-of-control students, timid administrators and too-powerful education unions, to name a few. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is one of the few trying to buck the education establishment, in order to save money and improve student performance. Unfortunately, Governor Christie's campaign is the exception and not the rule.
We also find it rather curious that first lady Michelle Obama has failed to weigh in on this matter. Earlier this year, she (correctly) described the nation's childhood obesity epidemic as a threat to national security, since young people who are grossly overweight are ineligible for military service. But we lose far more recruits to the AFQT issue and (so far) the White House has been silent. Wouldn't want to offend all those NEA members who write checks for Democratic politicians and vote in lock-step for the party's candidates.
Additionally, this recruiting issue may also be affected by the recent repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." A landmark Heritage Foundation Study (conducted five years ago), found that 29 states, mostly in the south, Midwest and west, were over-represented among military recruits. At that time, the states with the highest proportional enlistment rates (compared to the general population) were: Montana, Texas, Wyoming, Alaska and Oklahoma.
All are deeply red, located in flyover country (a.k.a. "Jesusland"), more closely identified with traditional American values, including opposition to homosexuality. With DADT now gone, will young people from those states (and other rural regions) still be willing to sign up in required numbers to sustain current force levels? Or should the recruiters expand their efforts in places like San Francisco and New York City, which have, in recent years, supplied small numbers of recruits in relation to their overall population. Call it another, unintended consequence of repealing DADT.