Education and Readiness

One of the nice things about guest authors is that they find good stuff for me to write about. Craig tipped me to this article about the difficulty some folks have passing the ASVAB test.

Nearly one-fourth of the students who try to join the military 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.

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. The study, released exclusively to The Associated Press on Tuesday, comes on top of Pentagon data that shows 75 percent of those aged 17 to 24 don’t qualify for the military because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn’t graduate high school.


The ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) is not an IQ test. It is a practical test to give an indication of how trainable someone is. Reading comprehension and other basic skills are needed to pass the test. Obviously, the test is harder for stupid people than smart. But there are also a lot of smart people that have terrible educations that just cannot understand what it is the test is asking of them in the limited time available. And if they can’t do that, they would also be a drag on the training process if they were permitted to enlist.

There’s what? Roughly a half a million people on active duty in the Army. Call it roughly a million and a half for all the services. That’s about one half of one percent of the US population. That doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? But the fact is, the market the services recruit from is incredibly tight.  First, the target market is roughly from 18-22 years old. That’s a very small slice of the US demographic pie. And then you add in those qualifications that the snippet above mentions. The vast majority of enlistees must have a high school diploma. When you talk about recruiting in heavily African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, that is something of a challenge. The lower rates of graduation in those communities, hand in hand with the heavy recruitment of the graduates there, means that for  the smaller number of qualified people , military service is a less attractive option than it may have been in the past. That issue also applies to some extent to the non-minority community. 

The Army needs to recruit about a fifth of its total strength, each and every year. Call it about 100,000 people. There are any number of reasons for a young person to not enlist. There are only really a handful of reasons to enlist. And shrinking the pool of qualified applicants means that the recruiting job gets harder and harder. The Army is faced with two options. Offer more and better benefits (which tends to have very expensive consequences downstream) or accept lower quality recruits (which almost certainly has nearly immediate negative effects such as greater disciplinary problems and higher rates of failure to complete an enlistment, and worse, people dying of stupidity). Neither option is very attractive. I won’t be surprised if the Army finds Option Three the most attractive- work the recruiters harder.

17 thoughts on “Education and Readiness”

  1. Distressing numbers, but I don’t think that underperforming high-school performers considering joining the military is a new phenomenon.

    1. for the record, I made the honor roll my last semester.

      I also got a 99 on the ASVAB in my junior year.

      Oddly, when I reenlisted in 89, I had to take it again, and only got a 98.

    2. No, I didn’t grow up here, LT Rusty. Esli and I grew up in the great state of Washington. And yes, his academic achievements far outstripped mine.

      But I was better looking.

  2. If our military would simply bomb the complex @ 600 Independence Avenue Southwest, in Washington D.C. where the not-beloved-and poorly-performing-socialist-leaning Department of Edumication takes up valuable real estate, then within a matter of years our high school graduates would be better educated and suited for military service.

    Ok. Maybe that’s a little too ‘creative’ an idea for some, but it’s worth a discussion. Don’tcha think?

  3. Um… Is it okay to say “bomb” here?

    If you say that in jest at an airport or in a carrier, you get taken away.

  4. Brad, this is an old debate. It is much like the person who looks at arithmetic and math and says they are the same. The problem is they don’t understand, arithmetic is an answer based goal. But math, on the other hand, is processed based. The real answer is how did you get to your answer, what will the processes you used to come to that conclusion. I had an instructor in mathematics who raised the question, “Why is 1+1, on a base 10 scale work dec scale, equal 2? His answer was always, “we are in compliance with the laws of math.” People may know about many things, but do they really know them? We are talking about the difference of theoretical thinking and experiential thinking. There is a world of difference between the two. The hard thing to understand is this, when I went to high school, we had cartilage and trigonometry in the earliest two years. We had algebra in sixth through eighth grades. The other thing is this, they did not promote you for social reasons, you earn your grades for promotion to the next grade. Yes, I skipped a couple of grades, but I would not suggest it. I was not 12 years old when I started high school. I had the option to skip a grade in high school and I said, no.

    The problem in today’s Military is this, we need to bring people who have both knowledge and experiential learning. It brings so much more to your understanding of the Military, even you can bring both. The accurate mix is sometimes called wisdom, this is what we really need.

  5. Given that it is a percentile based test and the Army’s cut off is 31 or 33, why would it be surprising that a quarter of them don’t score sufficiently high?

    As for education, the problem lies with lack of parental involvement and student motivation. Politicians can’t really go out and say that and with them, funding is their hammer and every problem a nail, so there you go.

    1. Well, the percentile part applies to the age population as a whole. To include the handicapped. So one would hope that High School Graduates failing would be a marginal number, say 5%. That a quarter of people can’t pass a basic test of competency says a lot, and is a huge problem not only for the Army, but for society as well. Especially concern ing is the failure rate for African-American grads- 40%!

      My limited experience in recruiting in that community was depressing. Finding an applicant who was able to score at or above the 50%, where the best enlistment options kick in, was very difficult. It was hard to tell an obviously smart young man that his education in HS was holding him back.

  6. Pedagogy = teaching the basics, usually to children. It’s original core meaning involved the concept of teaching children because the root ‘ Ped’ means children. It’s teaching without giving a lot of reason why the learning. And frequently it means that discipline of the student is involved, because if they don’t want to learn but need to, then positive and negative discipline are involved. When we all learned our alphabet, simple words, reading, writing, cursive, math, multiplication tables and such, we learned these fundamentals without really knowing why we were learning. We learned mainly because we were told to. For the child, that’s not a bad thing. Adults are the grown-ups. We know why children need to learn. They should not get to be in charge or make that decision. Period.

    But as students move toward adulthood learning & teaching techniques change. We adults or near adults (adolescents) learn better through Andragogy = the learning and teaching of adults. Adults learn differently. They are participants in the learning sometimes by the teaching of themselves. They ask why learn this. They grab for information rather than permit themselves to be spoon-fed. They step back and look at techniques for better and more efficient learning of themselves as individuals. They anticipate what is coming next. They develop meta-cognizance with practice. And also as they learn they are pulling in things they already know and assimilating them into the new mix of information. And sometimes in the process they are even teaching the teacher about their already learned core knowledge — their point of reference.

    I agree with Grumpy. Experienced and seasoned persons not only make better ‘students’ they also make for better military personnel. But I also believe that if we could return to some of the old ways of simple disciplined learning in our schools (during the Pedagogy years) I am certain our students would return to a better learning environment, but that requires many things to be completely overhauled, including expectations at home and government intervention.

  7. First, I can’t let Xbrad attempt to compare our scholastic achievements, as they are really incomparable…
    Second, to Cathy above, good laydown of pedagogy v andragogy. The army leads the way in advanced education at the Command and General Staff College, where experiential learning is the norm for students and instructors. I would submit, though, that for probably 75% of the army, the need is for motor-skills and basic memorization (this is the battle drill; this is how you operate this equipment, etc) while critical or creative thinking skills are not necessary until you reach more senior positions. I do heartily concur with your concluding comments, though.

  8. I appreciate your explanation about the teaching motor-skills and basic memorization training that is necessary, Esli. A lot of pedagogy in there but tailored for adults. And the discipline aspect of the military ends up being in there too, sorta like ‘learn this well because your life and the lives of others depend on it,’ or ‘that’s an order.’ That’s pedagogy in its purest sense.

    I’ve not seen these tests, but I’ll assume they attempt to measure some of what adolescents already know along with, hopefully, their ability to learn. No one can every know everything they need for a position they have not yet assumed. However it is possible to make judgments about whether a person is able and motivated to learn. I think those are the crucial elements that need to be measured in the tests — and in my opinion no one should be lowering the bar.

  9. For the record, “Dragon Speak for the Mac” and I are trying to work together. Sometimes, it great, and others, it is not so great. Yesterday, *not so great* at 8PM. In junior high school, we studied *Calculus*, not “cartilage”. I’ve learned a lesson. Yes, even dumb old Vets, like me can learn.

    There was one day, I was having a real problem writing for a school homework assignment. My father saw me and came into talk with me. I figured I was going get “chewed out”. He knows I saw him, but he goes out to the kitchen for two cups of coffee. He left me in my room to stew, now I was totally confused, what was he up to? He came back into my room, and sat down he said, “You need to take a break, let’s talk.” I know this old man well enough, not to relax, he is up to something! He said, “I figured you were having a problem and needed to talk. I am not owing to give you the answers, in fact, I’m going to give you more questions.”. I figured this is just what I need, more questions. ( Sarcasm) He said, “I know you don’t like this homework. My question is simple, when you get out of school, are you going to be finished with homework?” As I’m sitting there, it’s starting to make sense, I don’t like it, but I’m going to be doing homework for the rest of my life. The irony of this whole event was this, I would spend the rest of my life essentially doing the very thing I hated, writing. The real value of this discussion is to encourage young people to develop their own essential skill sets. The most important thing is to learn them in such a way that they can be used in both wartime and peacetime. I never really thought about the concept of words being weapons. But as I went through my life, I saw this event with my father to be and extremely important event. My father was not a hard man to get along with, he didn’t have a lot of rules or counsel. But when he did, you had better listen.

    Let me take a moment, and wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  10. Hate to say it Brad, but the ASVAB and all its ancestors are and were designed to be IQ tests. IQ is simply the ratio of mental age to chronological age. IQ tests measure trainability. Jerry Pournelle has had few discussions on the matter at his site and the headline of your post is also up on his site (in mail, iirc).

    I took the old AQB in high school, in San Antonio and later took the ASVAB. I remember scoring very high on the AQB, but got a 99 on the ASVAB. After my son took it he asked me what my score was. He had scored a 99 as well.

    It’s a bit strange that you scored a 98 on the 2nd go round. I took it a second time in the 80s and made the same score. I wonder if it wasn’t a scoring anomaly as you should have scored the same given the design of the test.

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