Since 1968, the military has used the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, to assess all incoming recruits. This single test predicts academic skills and determines what military occupational specialty, or MOS, the recruit is qualified to perform in their service.
However, these evaluations are subject to bias, such a race or income inequality, and don’t accurately measure a recruit’s aptitude to perform a job. In short, they focus on mathematical and verbal skills that aren’t indicative of actual intelligence or the ability to learn. By including a series of practical, task-based evaluations and redesigning the academic exam to test ability to perform a skill and not simply academic knowledge, the ASVAB can become a better assessment of a recruit’s aptitude — and potentially their career success.
It is time to replace the ASVAB with a new method of assessing aptitude and ability to learn a trade.
What is the ASVAB?
The ASVAB is a mandatory 3-hour standardized test designed to assess strengths and weaknesses in verbal, math, science, and spatial reasoning domains for all recruits entering the military, regardless of service.
The multiple-choice test is typically administered on a computer at either a local recruiting station or Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and is scored across 10 different subtests. Overall scores are various combinations of the different subtests — each service has its own criteria — which are then used by recruiters to determine what MOS will be available to the recruit.
Though the ASVAB is supposed to be testing a recruit’s aptitude to perform a job, the exam’s measurement of current knowledge does not leave room for an individual’s future growth. After all, the typical recruit is unlikely to have prior experience operating aircraft, a nuclear reactor, sonar system, or weapons system. Instead, this knowledge is gained following basic training and, most importantly, on the job.
The ASVAB is not a good indicator of the ability to learn, it is simply a snapshot of one’s knowledge at that moment. Thus, a 17-year-old may have their entire career shaped by scores on a single test.
What does the ASVAB really measure?
Aptitude is intuitive and not easily taught. Despite this, there are ASVAB study books and preparation courses, much like those used to prepare for the SAT. These practices imply the ASVAB measures learned intelligence rather than aptitude or one’s ability to perform a skill.
Take, for example, a potential recruit who has poor grades, particularly in math, but who works as a mechanic at an auto shop. Under the current ASVAB, a poor score on the math knowledge subtest likely eliminates them from nearly all mechanical jobs, despite having both an aptitude and experience in that field.
Instead, the recruit would likely qualify for a poorly matched MOS that would result in poor performance and attrition from the service rather than a long and successful career.
Currently, ASVAB scores are normalized to standards that were established in 1997 using outdated data. The military is, in essence, comparing today’s youth to nearly two generations before it. Comparisons of the scores from the last 20 years show that scores in the two highest percentile brackets rose 3% each while scores in the middle percentiles dropped by that amount. Although DoD officials suggest that demographic shifts have not been significant enough to change norming outcomes, this shift suggests otherwise.
Can scores be biased?
Since the ASVAB is a standardized test, it falls subject to biases one might see with the SAT. Recruits from low-income or rural areas are more likely to score lower than recruits from affluent areas who attend better schools and can afford to take prep courses.
The Defense Department does not do much data tracking of ASVAB scores. The most recent data comes from the 2019 Armed Forces Qualification Test, or AFQT, which yields a percentile score derived from the arithmetic reasoning, math knowledge, and verbal expression subtests. It’s not surprising to see the lowest mean scores by state align with states that have the lowest school ratings.
The Army Future Soldier Preparatory Course was created in part to boost ASVAB scores for recruits who did not meet minimum scores. The 90-day course takes these potential recruits through a crash course that has yielded vast improvement — an average of 17 points after just two attempts at the exam.
The existence of this program suggests that knowledge to score high on the ASVAB can be taught, and is therefore academic rather than aptitude-based. If true, then can the ASVAB truly assess one’s ability to succeed in a career field?
The Future Soldier Prep Course is in its infancy, so it is too early to tell whether the program creates better soldiers or simply teaches recruits how to pass an exam. The Navy recently announced a simpler route, lowering the minimum AFQT scores for enlistment. But after seeing the Army’s success the sea service announced its own version, the Future Sailor Preparatory Course.
How can aptitude be evaluated?
Evaluation improvements could look like an individual performing a series of tasks that exhibit skills that do not require baseline knowledge in academia — for example, using tools to perform basic repairs or following a computer instruction program.
The exam would therefore no longer be entirely academic, but would reveal the practical ability of a recruit. This would highlight the difference between foundational and applied knowledge, the latter of which is more important when learning actual career skills.
This change will not be easy to implement. There still must be some academic evaluation of math knowledge and reading comprehension, but a future test design — preferably by a PhD or ED who can shape the questions to better evaluate the recruit’s aptitude — should include questions that demonstrate problem solving and analysis rather than trivial knowledge.
The costs of redesigning the entrance exam would be high, including funds needed for more proctors and facilities to conduct the tests. Increased costs will be offset, however, by requiring less training for new personnel due to higher retention. One other limitation is the new test’s inability to measure leadership potential, though no other entry-level tests currently measure this.
For years, the ASVAB has been the determining factor of a recruit’s MOS. However, it is no longer the best or most accurate assessment. Its continued misuse is likely to result in poor performance and job dissatisfaction, leading to further recruiting and retention shortfalls.
The military needs to find better methods to match an individual’s abilities to a job in order to become a more effective fighting force.
Lt. Cmdr. Stewart Latwin is the Navy Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense.
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