Criteria on test scores relaxed for Army

Service to accept more recruits with poor marks

October 08, 2005|By TOM BOWMAN | TOM BOWMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Faced with the toughest recruiting climate in nearly a decade, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey told reporters this week that he would begin accepting more people who score in the bottom third on the military's aptitude test.

What Harvey didn't say was that the Army has already done that.

Recruiting figures to be released Tuesday will show that about 4 percent - or roughly 2,900 of the 73,000 recruits - scored at the bottom of the Army's test, Pentagon and military officials told The Sun.

In 2004, the Army accepted just 440 soldiers from the lowest category, or about 0.6 percent of 70,000 recruits. Army rules allowed the service to accept up to 2 percent of low scorers.

By doubling that percentage to 4, the Army will bring in more low scorers than at any time since 1989, according to Army records, raising concerns among some members of Congress, military analysts and retired officers that the service is lowering quality.

Harvey told reporters that he saw "no reason or no data to justify" keeping the 2 percent figure, particularly since Defense Department rules allow the military services to bring in up to 4 percent of low-scoring recruits.

The Army will also relax its standards on the higher end of the aptitude test. The service had required that 67 percent of all recruits score in the top third on the test. Now, only 60 percent of recruits must meet that standard.

"We had something of an artificial system," Harvey said. "We are not changing standards. We are just going to abide by the long-standing Defense Department standards with regard to quality."

But the changes described by Harvey are troubling to some who argue that an Army that is increasingly relying on computers and other sophisticated equipment and is involved in battling complex insurgencies needs highly skilled soldiers.

Moreover, they point out, Pentagon studies show that recruits without high school diplomas or those scoring the lowest on aptitude tests tend to have more discipline problems and leave the Army at higher rates at the end of their first enlistment. The Army, the largest of all military services with about 492,000 soldiers, needs competent soldiers more than ever, they say, and those with a lack of intellectual capability are a burden to their superiors.

"It is a huge problem for company commanders and sergeants to work with those of the lowest capability and try to train them on the complexities of the Bradley fighting vehicle and its night vision goggles and its weapons systems," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded armored forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "You have to be quick and alert."

McCaffrey said the reason U.S. soldiers are successful is not their superior technology; "it's the caliber of the soldiers and leadership."

Those who score the lowest on the aptitude test - less than 30 points out of a possible 99 - are known as Category IV. The test quizzes potential soldiers on general science, mathematics and word knowledge.

One sample word-knowledge question asks which is the closest word to villainous, listing the four choices: untidy, dignified, homely and wicked. Another for math asks about a weekly salary that is increased from $350 to $380. The percent of increase is, most nearly: 6 percent, 8.5 percent, 10 percent or 12.5 percent.

In previous decades, the Army let in much larger percentages of Cat IV recruits - as high as 50 percent - until Congress and successive administrations imposed quality controls. In 1984, the Army brought in 13 percent Cat IV recruits, dropping to 10 percent in 1985 before lowering to single digits in the late 1980s. Since 1990, the number of Cat IVs has been 2 percent or under.

The steady decrease in the number of Cat IVs came at the insistence of Army Gen. Maxwell Thurman, who was a principal architect of the all-volunteer Army and who spearheaded the successful 1980s advertisement campaign, "Be All That You Can Be."

"If we bring in good soldiers now, we reap the benefits of their talents for up to 30 years," Thurman told Congress in 1984. "On the other hand, if we bring marginal soldiers into the force, we must make allowances for inefficiency for up to three decades."

Retired Army Col. Bob Helvey, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, said the decision to accept more low-aptitude soldiers would "undermine the effectiveness of the Army."

"We're talking about the lives of other people," he said. "We're going backwards."

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense for manpower in the Reagan administration, said bringing in a less-capable recruit can negate the strides the Army has made in the past two decades to create a highly trained, all-volunteer force.

"It's a slippery slope, and you get the bad apples," he said. Such recruits lead to training challenges that can frustrate sergeants and other experienced soldiers, who might end up leaving the Army, exacerbating the problem.

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