Quarter of Georgians fail Army entry test

Leaders say results show flaws of state schools, educators and military

Brittany Bryant swore she wouldn’t get nervous. That’s why she had failed on her first attempt to pass the military entrance exam. But the Powder Springs teen was finding it hard to control her jitters.

“This is a really big deal for me,” said Bryant, 19, before taking the test Tuesday at Fort Gillem in Forest Park. For her, a military career represents a path to “great things in my life” and a response to those who’ve told her she won’t amount to much.

Bryant is among thousands of Georgians who have struggled with the military entrance exam, formally called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. One in four Georgia high school graduates fail the test to enter the Army, according to a report by the Washington advocacy group The Education Trust. Georgia’s failure rate of 25 percent is slightly worse than the national average of 23 percent.

The research group did not analyze data for other branches of the service, which set the passing score higher than the Army.

The poor results have raised concerns about the future readiness of the American military. What’s more, educators and retired military leaders say the report reveals the flaws of a troubled education system that produces graduates not only unprepared for the military but for many jobs in the civilian world.

“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,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “I am deeply troubled by the national security burden created by America’s underperforming education system.”

The report’s portrait of Georgia parallels that of the nation in other ways: African-American and Hispanic young people are more likely to fail the exam than white applicants, although the gap is less pronounced in Georgia than nationally. The report, which examined the test results of 13,597 Georgians aged 17 to 20, found that 34 percent of African-Americans, 20 percent of Hispanics and 17 percent of white applicants did not pass.

Nearly half of Georgians who take the Army exam are African-American. That is more than double the proportion of black test-takers nationally.

“We need to roll up our sleeves to work even harder” to address the “unacceptably high number of graduates not able to pass the military entrance exam,” said state education superintendent Brad Bryant (no relation to Brittany Bryant).

He said the state Department of Education is working with schools, communities, military groups and the Georgia National Guard to help students improve the skills needed to enter the military and civilian work force. One program with the Georgia National Guard helps troubled students enter military service.

Georgia has more high school ROTC programs than many states, but not enough to meet the demand. However, budget constraints hamper adding many more, superintendent Bryant said. Pilot programs will roll out next year in two Gwinnett middle schools to introduce some lessons derived from ROTC training, he said.

The Education Trust study, released last week, follows 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. These problems are particularly pointed in Georgia, which ranks worse than the national average on each of those variables.

Despite the number of applicants who fail the entrance exam, Department of Defense officials, as well as metro Atlanta recruiters, say they are meeting their recruitment goals. Their numbers have actually increased as young people seek a secure job in the midst of high unemployment. Army recruiters in the Atlanta region exceeded their recruitment goal of 861 high school or college graduates in the past year by 51 percent, bringing in 1,304, said Jim Humphreys, spokesman for the Army recruiting battalion in Atlanta.

Nevertheless, retired military leaders nationally and in Georgia have gathered forces to address the high failure rate on military entrance tests.

“The state of education today is a national security issue,” said retired Maj. Gen. Jack C. Wheeler of Fayetteville, a member of the group called Mission: Readiness, Military Leaders for Kids.

Mission: Readiness is working with a Georgia group intent on preparing young children for greater academic achievement. The group, Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, advocates enhanced instruction in child care settings and pre-k classrooms, combined with teaching parents the value of early learning.

Stephanie Blank, the wife of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, is the group’s chairwoman. Her family’s foundation, along with the Atlanta Falcons’ Youth Foundation, has worked to improve both the academic and physical fitness of young Georgians.

As Brittany Bryant and about 20 other young people took the military entrance exam Tuesday, the intense quiet in the room reflected the importance of the multiple-choice test, which can take three hours to complete. Even for those who have no trouble passing, the test is considered among the most important moments in a military career. The assessment of basic math, science and reading skills can set the course of their military lives, determining which specialties they are qualified to enter.

Bryant, a graduate of Lithonia High School, studied for weeks, poring over study guides specifically geared toward the exam. She even bought the “ASVAB for Dummies” book, and took a half dozen practice tests online. She wants to enter the Army, something in the medical field, maybe dental hygiene.

“The first time, I got nervous,” Bryant said. She had second-guessed herself and changed answers at the last minute. “This time, I don’t want to overthink it.”

Others in the room had their own reasons for being there. Jamal Griffin had taken the test before but failed to obtain a high enough score to enter the Air Force, so he was taking it again to qualify to be an air traffic controller. Steve Smith had been attending the University of West Georgia, but he saw many graduates leave the school only to end up in minimum-wage jobs. “I think this is the smart financial decision,” said the young Newnan man who sees himself retiring from the Air Force as an officer in 20 years.

After the exam, Brittany Bryant said she did feel “a little nervous.”

But in the end, she passed the exam with a little room to spare. Her grade wasn’t good enough to qualify her for training as a dental hygienist, but she figured she could study and take tests for that once she’s in uniform.

“I’m happy I passed,” she said, adding that she hoped to head off to basic training “as soon as possible.”