MIAMI – Nearly one-fourth of the students who try to join the U.S. Army fail its entrance exam, painting a grim picture of an education system that produces graduates who can’t answer basic math, science and reading questions, according to a study released Tuesday.
The report by The Education Trust bolsters a growing worry among military and education leaders that the pool of young people qualified for military service will grow too small.
“Too many of our high school students are not graduating ready to begin college or a career – and many are not eligible to serve in our armed forces,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the AP. “I am deeply troubled by the national security burden created by America’s underperforming education system.”
The effect of the low eligibility rate might not be noticeable now – the Department of Defense says it is meeting its recruitment goals – but that could change as the economy improves, said retired Navy Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett.
“If you can’t get the people that you need, there’s a potential for a decline in your readiness,” said Barnett, who is part of the group Mission: Readiness, a coalition of retired military leaders working to bring awareness to the high ineligibility rates.
The report by The Education Trust found that 23 percent of recent high school graduates don’t get the minimum score needed on the enlistment test to join any branch of the military. Questions are often basic, such as: “If 2 plus x equals 4, what is the value of x?”
The military exam results are also worrisome because the test is given to a limited pool of people: Pentagon data show that 75 percent of those ages 17 to 24 don’t even qualify to take the test because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn’t graduate high school.
Educators expressed dismay that so many high school graduates are unable to pass a test of basic skills.
“It’s surprising and shocking that we are still having students who are walking across the stage who really don’t deserve to be and haven’t earned that right,” said Tim Callahan with the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a group that represents more than 80,000 educators.
This is the first time that the U.S. Army has released this test data publicly, said Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based children’s advocacy group. The study examined the scores of nearly 350,000 high school graduates, ages 17 to 20, who took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery between 2004 and 2009. About half of the applicants went on to join the Army.
Recruits must score at least a 31 out of 99 on the first stage of the three-hour test to get into the Army. The Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard recruits need higher scores.
The study shows wide disparities in scores among white and minority students, similar to racial gaps on other standardized tests. Nearly 40 percent of black students and 30 percent of Hispanics don’t pass, compared with 16 percent of whites. The average score for blacks is 38 and for Hispanics is 44, compared to whites’ average score of 55.
Even those passing muster on the ASVAB usually aren’t getting scores high enough to snag the best jobs.
“A lot of times, schools have failed to step up and challenge these young people, thinking it didn’t really matter – they’ll straighten up when they get into the military,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. “The military doesn’t think that way.”
Entrance exams for the U.S. military date to World War I. The test has changed over time as computers and technology became more prevalent, and skills like ability to translate Morse code have fallen by the wayside.
The test was overhauled in 2004, and the study only covers scores from 2004 through 2009.
Tom Loveless, an education expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the results echo those on other tests. In 2009, 26 percent of seniors performed below the ‘basic’ reading level on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
“A lot of people make the charge that in this era of accountability and standardized testing, that we’ve put too much emphasis on basic skills,” Loveless said. “This study really refutes that. We have a lot of kids that graduate from high school who have not mastered basic skills.”