What do military exam failure rates really say about schools?

The Associated Press headline sounds alarming: “Nearly 1 in 4 fails military exam.” For the first time, the story goes on to report, the military has released the results of the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) exam, which is used as an entrance exam for people seeking to join any branch of the military. Those results–from more than 350,000 high school graduates who took the exam between 2004 and 2009–were analyzed by the Education Trust in a report titled “Shut Out of the Military.” The AP reports:

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 shows that 75 percent of those aged 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.

Now, however you feel about the military, it doesn’t sound very good that so few Americans meet minimum standards. Indeed, the article quotes U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and military leaders expressing grave concerns over what these test results say about the U.S. educational system and the implications for national security.

But here’s the thing: the group of people taking the ASVAB is self-selected, because the test is not required by any other institution. I suppose there might be school districts that encourage students to take the test, but for the most part you would only take it if you were seriously considering joining up.  And until recently, before the economy faltered, military recruiters were having trouble meeting their targets because of the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that most of the people taking the ASVAB are those with few other prospects — those who failed to enter college (or couldn’t afford it), or who could not find employment that offers the same benefits or advancement possibilities that the military does. More than 2.5 million people graduate from high school in the U.S. each year, but the sample analyzed by the Education Trust consisted of just 350,000: those between the ages of 17 and 20 who took the test anytime during the five-year period studied. This is too small a sample of U.S. high school graduates to draw the blanket conclusions reported in the Associated Press article.

To its credit, the Education Trust report dwells more on its finding that young people of color fail the test at much higher rates, presumably because they are at much higher risk to be concentrated in under-resourced schools:

[F]or millions, including many low-income and minority youth, the armed forces have been a gateway to the middle class. While giving back, recruits have developed skills and abilities that prepared them for solid careers both in military and in civilian life. Unfortunately, many of the young people today who pin their hopes on starting a career with the armed forces after high school will never get that chance.

Just as secondary schools are failing to prepare many students for college and careers in the civilian workforce, so too are they failing to prepare young men and women for military service. Perhaps most disturbingly, many young people of color are not prepared by their high schools to make the cut.

Again, however you feel about the military, the Education Trust is absolutely right that military service has represented a path to the middle class, and that path does appear to be moving further out of reach for those who need it the most. The sad thing is, I don’t think the top brass really minded being the last-chance ticket to the middle class for minority youth — until the ASVAB failure rates crept high enough to endanger future recruiting. The AP article quotes a Department of Defense report as saying that the military must recruit about 15 percent of youth to maintain readiness. It would be ironic if as a nation we only found the will to universally provide quality educational opportunities because of the demands of our military.

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2 responses to “What do military exam failure rates really say about schools?

  1. When I was in school (graduated HS in 87) in Michigan most kids took the ASVAB, along with SAT, PSAT, ACT, etc. Was just another test.

  2. It’s really annoying how often the press manages to be oblivious to obvious contributing factors. Don’t even get me started on how utterly blind they are to the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” principle.

    That aside: If the needs of the military provided motivation to increase resources and support for our schools, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. The National School Lunch Program was fully established after World War II, because the military found that a high number of recruits and draftees were too malnourished to serve. So the real reason for the NSLP was national security.

    By the way, as a school food advocate, I sometimes encounter people — right/libertarian types — who grumble that parents, not the government, should be feeding their kids. When I point out that national security was the motivator behind the NSLP, it shuts them up 100% of the time. So wouldn’t it be interesting if that worked with the anti-public-education curmudgeons as well.