A December 21, 2010 story from the Associated Press noted The Education Trust, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Navy Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett, Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, and retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman R. Seip all bemoaning the fact like it was some horrible thing. Arne Duncan, for example, is quoted as saying "I am deeply troubled by the national-security burden created by America's underperforming education system." It is classic, uncritical press release journalism.
The ASVAB Failure Rate Is Actually Good News
The trouble is that all of these dignitaries and experts are clueless and got the story wrong. The ASVAB scoring system was renormalized starting in 2004, and that scoring system was designed in the first place so that 31% of the people taking the test would fail it.
The fact that only 23% of applicants failed a test that was designed to fail 31% of the people taking the test implies that the quality of the applicants has greatly improved in the past five year. A 23% failure rate is good news, not bad news.
Also, the state to state, and ethnicity and to ethnicity comparisons in the report, while stark and predictable (blacks and Hispanics fail much more often than whites, and states in the South have higher failure rates), probably tell us more about the the demographics of the people attacted to military service in different parts of the nation, than it does about the quality of their education. A far larger share of Southerners seek out military service than in most of the rest of the country. And, low scores on the AVSAB may reflect the fact that a larger share of students in that state or ethnic group who could either go to college immediately, or pursue military service, have chosen to go to college.
In reality, this is the kind of good news that President Obama should be touting in press conferences as a sign of an education system that is making progress and a military that is attracting better quality recruits even in wartime. But, apparently, nobody in the administration was bright enough to figure that out.
The ASVAB Is Neither An IQ Test Nor An Academic Ability Test
The military takes great pains to make clear that the ASVAB is not an IQ test (although in reality, IQ was developed as a concept in the first place because virtually all test of ability to do anything have a statistically common factor called "g" in common that partially explain performance on them).
But, the denials are more for PR purposes than general purpose. The "g" factor which is roughly speaking translates to what is commonly known as academic ability, is reasonably closely tied to the four parts of the ASVAB that are considered in the formula to determine the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) score used to determine eligibility for military services. They are:
Word Knowledge (WK)
Paragraph Comprehension (PC)
Arithmetic Reasoning (AR)
Mathematics Knowledge (MK)
There are five other sections of the nine section test, but involve subjects that the public education system, which is under intense pressure to prepare every child for college, is more patchy in offering consistent curriculum regarding. Those sections, which are important in assigning recruits to military occupational specialties, but not to their ability to enter military service at all, are:
Mechanical Comprehension (MC)
Automotive and Shop Information (AS)
Electronics Information (EI)
Assembling Objects (AO)
General Science (GS)
Obesity Is The Only Factor Reducing The Pool of Applicants
There actually is a problem with the shrinking pool of eligible military recruits. It just doesn't happen to be that fewer of them are smart enough to serve. The AP story notes:
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.
A Department of Defense report notes the military must recruit about 15 percent of youth, but only one-third are eligible. More high school graduates are going to college than in earlier decades, and about one-fourth are obese, making them medically ineligible.
In 1980, by comparison, just 5 percent of youth were obese.
Since juvenile and adult crime rates has actually fallen considerably over the last decade, and high school graduation rates have not fallen, and a larger share of applicants are passing the ASVAB than in the group against which the test was normed, the only factor that is reducing the pool of qualified military applicants is the rising obesity rate, which is up five fold in thirty years.
The national security concern is a public health program, not an academic education problem. If we are really concerned about the shrinking pool of military applicants (and I don't agree that this should be our national priority), we should be working on better school nutrition and more rigorous physical education requirements, not more rigorous math and language arts programs.
Why Are ASVAB Scores Better?
I don't honestly believe that the quality of the education system in the United States has changed that much one way or the other in the last five years.
One plausible possibility is that performance on the ASVAB is rising because young adults who were part of the pool of test takers before and would have failed in the past, are no longer able to take the test because they are too fat. Another possibility is that active African-American community efforts to discourage young African-American men from enlisting for at least some of the 2004 to 2009 time period has reduced the African-American share of the test taking pool which on average failed at a higher rate.
It is also possible that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led many more talented people who wouldn't have sought military service in peacetime to join the military out of a sense of patriotism and duty, while making the military less attractive, as a result of an increased risk of wartime injury or death, to those who had not had success in the education system and were interested in military service primarily as a means for career advancement and skill training.
The Bad News Is That Well Educated People Who Should Know Better
But, more important than the fact that there has been a shift in test score performance on the ASVAB is that a whole lot of respectable senior government, non-profit and teacher's union officials, as well as the Associated Press writer behind the story, can't tell the difference between bad news and good news.
Of course, the blame mostly goes to the Education Trust, whose negative spin to its report was accepted as fact by almost everyone else offering commentary on the subject, whose researchers really should have known better than to make such an elementary error. Their mistake is on a par with an employer bemoaning the fact that 20% of employees take sick days on Friday as a sign of laziness or complaining that half of your students are below average; impressive sounding but utterly absurd on closer examination.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with trying to get schools to do a better job. There is room for improvement and that room for improvement is probably greatest with non-college bound students who are taking the ASVAB. But, if those who are trying to rate and lead and cajole educators are mathematically clueless and lack the capacity to engage in independent critical thinking, as this episode seems to show, how can we expect more from the students who are performing at mediocre levels in that system?