- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

MIAMI (AP) — 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 ages 17 to 24 don’t qualify for the military because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn’t graduate from high school.

“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 Adm. Jamie Barnett.

“If you can’t get the people that you need, there’s a potential for a decline in your readiness,” said Adm. Barnett, who is part of the group Mission: Readiness, a coalition of retired military leaders working to bring awareness to the high ineligibility rates.

Kenneth Jackson, 19, of Miami, enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school. He said passing the entrance exam is easy for those who paid attention in school, but he blamed the education system for why more recruits aren’t able to pass the test.

“The classes need to be tougher because people aren’t learning enough,” Mr. Jackson said.

This is the first time ever that the U.S. Army has released this test data publicly, said Amy Wilkins with the Education Trust, a Washington-based children’s advocacy group. She said the organization worked with the U.S. Army to get raw data on test takers from the past five years.

“It’s really about illuminating the issue of whether our high schools are preparing young people to serve the country,” said Ms. Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust. “It’s important for national security.”

The Education Trust study shows wide disparities in scores among white and minority students. Nearly 40 percent of black students and 30 percent of Hispanics don’t pass, compared with 16 percent of whites.

Even those passing muster on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or 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.”

Christina Theokas, the author of the study, said the test was updated in 2004 to reflect the current needs of the Army, and the Army didn’t want to release data from before the realignment.

Recruits must score at least in the 31st percentile on the first stage of the three-hour test to get into the Army or the Marines. Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard recruits must have higher scores.

The average score for blacks is 38 and for Hispanics is 44, compared to whites’ average score of 55. The scores reflect the similar racial gaps on other standardized exams.

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