Thursday, December 23, 2010

Shut Out

In the past, we're written at length about the looming recruiting crisis facing the U.S. military. Simply stated, too many of those in the prime demographic group targeted for enlistment (18-25 year-olds) don't quality for military service, for reasons ranging from obesity and other medical issues, to academic problems and past run-ins with the law. By some estimates, only 28% of young Americans in the prime enlistment cohort actually qualify for military service (emphasis ours).

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

Army 31
Marine Corps 32
Navy 35
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.


Vigilis said...

"...first lady Michelle Obama has failed to weigh in on this matter."

Wouldn't be nice if the UN staffed the militaries of all nations randomnly?

No, in my opinion it certainly would be a continuation of the Obama sovereignty sham.

Bud-D said...

Have these minimum scores for entry to the various services always been at this level, or have they been raising the entry levels because of the need for higher 'IQ' servicemembers?

Or is it that, in spite of the huge amounts of money spent on public education, the ASVAB scores are dropping?

Unknown said...

Bud--My experience in military recruiting was limited to ROTC, where we used the Armed Forces Officer Qualification Test, which used different measurement criteria.

From what I've heard, the minimum AFQT scores (on the enlisted side) have been lowered a bit in recent years, to help the services meet their quotas during tough recruiting times. But, as we note in the post, a qualifying score of 31 is about as low as the services can go. Below that, you'll have too many troops who simply can't master the basics of military life, left along the more complicated tasks required for many jobs/MOSs.

Mike Wilson said...

If I remember correctly, they test high school students every few years to get a reference distribution for the test scores. Law prevents the military from recruiting from Category V (the lowest 10%) and discourages recruits from Category IV. So 23% of applicants are rejected essentially by definition.

This comes from once reading "Population Representation in the Military Services" and briefly looking through it now.

BuckeyeSandy said...

"Or is it that, in spite of the huge amounts of money spent on public education, the ASVAB scores are dropping?"

Back in 1978, the USAF minimum was 60 to enlist. I scored 95 and had my pick of fields to enter.

Much of the failure are because there are no longer any "shop" classes at any level. When I was in school in the 1960s and 1970s, both the boys AND the girls had both "Home Economics" AND "Shop" classes, we rotated through basic electrical, automotive and tool usage, as well as some sewing and garment care, cooking and budgeting. And that was in junior high.

In high school, you could take shop or home economics as electives. I choose mechanical drawing and graphic arts, but I also took physics for an entire year too.

I just went to a site that had practice questions, and still scored in the 90s.

Much of the test is EASY if you were EVER exposed to the topics, if not, then it is most difficult and you can't even venture a guess.

Kids need "hands on" education, as well as a mastery of fundamentals. Something they are not getting because of the "other" mandates.

My husband and I made sure our two kids DID get the "hands on" stuff at home just from helping us with chores and routine maintenance stuff. They did not have the chance to take "shop" or "home economics" in middle or high school.

The question I have is who is going to be able to "do" the things that need doing in the next few years? This may be the canary in the coal mine.

sykes.1 said...

Two points. First, unless you intend to refight WWI or attempt a land invasion of
China, the recruiting drop off is not serious. The current military of about 0.3% of the population seems adequate for any foreseeable emergency. Anyway, in both WWI and WWII, recruiting standards were much lower than today.

Second, the AFQT is by and large an IQ test, and so-called improved education methods will not change the passage rate.

Unknown said...

Sandy: Sounds like you and I have a similar background. I took a college prep curriculum in high school (and had almost finished my bachelor's degree) by the time I enlisted. Additionally, I took shop as an elective in high school, so I was well-prepared for the ASVAB and earned the same score (95) on the test.

But I wasn't alone. Kids who had taken college-prep classes in high school and had some college under their belts were more than ready for the exam, and the Air Force could pick and choose among prospective enlistees. When I signed up in the spring of 1981, the quota for an Air Force recruiter was one a month. I suppose my recruiter was an over-achiever; he put two of us in that month--the other young man scored a 75, and the recruiter sent a couple of kids who scored in the 60s to see the Navy recruiter next door.

Thirty years later, the Air Force still has an easier time of it, but there aren't as many kids scoring in the 80s and 90s on the ASVAB--the very recruits you need to operate and maintain high-tech weapons and support systems. And sadly, that pool will continue to shrink, thanks in large part to our woefully deficient education system.

Sykes--You're probably right about sustaining current force levels, but the real issue is about the quality of the recruits needed. For the past 40 years, we've invested heavily in advanced systems, so we won't need as many grunts. It's almost impossible to train someone who scores a 31 on the ASVAB to fix jet engines, diagnose avionics problems, program computer systems, or perform any of hundreds of tasks required in today's military. And, as the pool of highly-qualified recruits continues to shrink, maintaining mission-readiness will prove that much more difficult.

One note on the lower standards during WWII. My father was a part of the peacetime draft in 1940. While assigned at Camp Polk, LA, he was given aptitude tests, along with the other draftees. A fair number were high school grads, and virtually all of them had experience in working with cars and other machines. So, most of the group had similar life experiences and education.

My dad said the biggest "difference maker" on the test was attitude. A lot of the guys simply blew it off, figuring the Army would still assign them randomly. My father gave it his best shot and wound up in a maintenance unit in the 3rd Armored Division; the slackers went straight to the infantry and as you can imagine, a lot of them wound up as cannon fodder.

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MarkD said...

If I remember correctly, I got a 98 on the test in 1971. The Marine Corps made me a computer programmer, although I enlisted with no guarantee of anything. It worked out well for me, although not all my peers survived our Asian adventure.

I went through boot camp with some guys who probably couldn't read "This side toward enemy" on a claymore. They ended up washing out, or with an MOS like Laundry. Weapons and idiots don't mix. The infantry got guys who were at least middling intelligent even then.

If we don't need many recruits, we're still OK. If the economy continues to drag, recruitment won't be a problem.

We have bigger problems.

Unknown said...

I joined the Air Force a year ago, and the minimum score then was 50. I got an 86 on the general, but aced the electrical and mechanical sections.

See, I was homeschooled. My education before college included everything from Cicero to concepts of quantum physics. My hobby now is reading and writing on nuclear energy policy with regard to thorium reactor technology.

None of that is to brag. It's just to point out the glaring difference between me and someone from the public school system. My parents taught me how to learn...and my colleagues' teachers taught them how to take a test.