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Pentagon Finds Recruits 'A Cut Above Average'

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Washington--A Pentagon-sponsored study comparing military recruits with a representative sample of other young Americans has found that the military volunteers--black, white, and Hispanic alike--score better than their civilian counterparts on a standard vocational aptitude test.

In another finding, expected by some to fuel the controversy that surrounds the issue of standardized testing, the test results showed that non-military white youths scored almost twice as high as black civilian youths, with Hispanic civilians scoring in between the levels of the other two groups.

Findings Potentially Volatile

The study's findings, officially released by the Department of Defense (dod) last week, were regarded as potentially volatile by military officials. They had attempted to ward off negative public reactions by meeting privately with representatives from various minority organizations before making the findings public. But after the study's results were leaked to The Washington Post, the department hastened the release of the information.

A spokesman for the National Urban League, however, said that her organization did not find the disparity between ethnic groups startling. "That is nothing new," said Maudine R. Cooper, vice president for Washington operations for the organization. "The test scores do nothing more than verify what we've already known."

The study does vindicate young military recruits, she said, who have unfairly been considered to be of substandard intelligence by some critics. She noted also that minority youths may use the military as a means of preparing for a career. "Smart people want to work," she said, "but there are no jobs. This is a way of getting training. It's good career planning."

The study, "Profile of Young Americans," marks the first time that a vocational aptitude test has been given to a nationally representative sample of young people, according to the Pentagon, which co-sponsored the study with the Department of Labor. Normally, the dod administers the 10 "subtests" that make up the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to recruits, both to determine if they are eligible for military service and to help decide where to place them once they have enlisted, according to officials.

Conducted in 1980 by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (norc) under a government contract, the project involved approximately 12,000 young people--both students and non-students--between the ages of 16 and 23, of both sexes, and from all regions of the country.

Standard Methods Used

Those participating were identified by standard statistical methods and had already been interviewed by norc for the Labor Department's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Labor Force Behavior.

The primary purpose of the study, according to the dod, was to compare 1981 military recruits with the 1980 youth population to see if the two groups differed.

The study revealed significant differences between the young people who chose to enlist in the military and those who did not; more recruits among all ethnic groups held high-school diplomas and scored higher on the battery of vocational aptitude tests than did their ethnic peers who were civilians.

The results also showed that such "sociocultural" factors as ethnic and racial characteristics made a difference. Among the young people tested in 1980--the civilians--whites had an average percentile score of 56, compared to 31 percent for Hispanics and 24 for blacks. The figures represent the percentile in which the scores fall; anything between 31 and 64 is regarded by the military as "average trainability." The scores themselves are a composite of an individual's performance on four of the 10 subtests. Together, these four scores make up the Armed Forces Qualifications Test (see chart below).

However, military recruits in all ethnic groups scored significantly higher than their civilian counterparts, according to the dod White recruits achieved average scores of 58 percent; Hispanic recruits scored, on the average, 33 percent, and black recruits averaged 41 percent.

The study also refutes the contention that this generation of young people is less well-prepared academically than their parents were. Among the young people tested in 1980, 40 percent placed in the top two categories established by the military. Among a group of adult males tested during World War II, 36 percent scored in these two categories.

Other significant findings:

Average percentile scores for the 1980 group increased with age.

Average percentile scores showed a clear relationship to levels of educational attainment. Non-high-school graduates had the lowest average scores; high-school graduates had the highest average scores; those who received a high-school equivalancy degree scored in between the other two groups.

Average scores varied according to region. Young people from New England and the West North Central regions had the highest scores; those in the three Southern regions scored lowest. Those from the other regions scored at the national average.

The Defense Department offers no explanation of these findings. According to the department's official statement, "The dod emphasized that no inferences whatsoever, regarding the intellectual abilities of any group, should be drawn from this study. The study merely indicates the capacity of individuals to be trained for duties in the Armed Services and was not done to make any judgments about subpopulations."

The scores for all groups, according to the dod, reflect the youths' past experience, socialization, and education.

However, a separate report prepared by norc researchers R. Darrell Bock and Elsie G.J. Moore offers a more thorough analysis of the links between the test scores and the background characteristics of the young persons tested.

'Differing Degrees of Contact'

In general, the researchers conclude:

"Evidence of the present study, and of other studies reported in the literature, indicates that group differences arise primarily from differing degrees of contact with and participation in the majority culture from which the vocational tests materials are drawn.

"Because the vocational tests draw heavily on information and information-processing skills that are not equally accessible and current in separate cultural groups, it is not surprising that the group differences in average performance on the tests should be observed.

"Generally the information required by the test is drawn from the artifacts of majority culture; indeed, the scientific and technical content of the tests is drawn from the highest level of that culture. This would explain why white samples, representing primarily the majority culture, perform uniformly best on these tests." This view is consonant with studies of standardized testing, notably recent reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences and the Ford Foundation. Both conclude that the variation in test scores can be attributed not to any inherent bias in the tests, but to social inequities and discrimination. Both reports also conclude that the uses to which the test scores are put offer potential for abuse.

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