As the state testing landscape changes in the wake of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. military hopes there may be an opening to expand its optional aptitude exam and career-exploration program in high schools.
The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, known in military and counselor circles as ASVAB, was administered in 48 percent of high schools nationwide last year, with about 650,000 students taking the exam, according to Shannon Salyer, the national program manager for the ASVAB Career Exploration Program, which is under the U.S. Department of Defense.
Participation fluctuates with unemployment, with more students typically taking the ASVAB when the jobless rate is high. But the military test was crowded out in some schools after the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in more standardized testing, although the number of high schools offering it increased in the past five years, Salyer said.
“One of the biggest problems we have when we go into schools is they say, ‘We love this program’ or ‘We want to do this program … but because we have this state-mandated testing, all our testing days are taken,’ ” she said. “With the rollback of some of that pressure on the schools, I think we’ll have some return schools and maybe some new schools that really understand the benefits of the program.”
Educators are combing the accountability requirements with the new version of the main federal K-12 law, which gives states considerable new flexibility over on-the-ground education decisions, including the details of how they go about meeting its testing requirements.
Recruiters hope if that flexibility leads to less time spent on required tests, that could free up space for ASVAB.
Some decisions to participate in these Defense Department tests are made at the state level, but it is generally left up to individual schools.
The tests are a recruiting tool masked as career exploration, some critics contend, and the military should be more transparent about their purpose. The conversation about the program comes at a time when military leaders—and some GOP presidential candidates—have suggested women should be required to register for the draft alongside men.
Updates on the Way
The military, which has given a version of the vocational assessment since 1968, with the career exploration added in 1992, is in the process of rolling out a new computer-adapted version that will reduce the test from three hours to 1½. The change, along with a modernized website and the potential for less time on standardized testing, creates a “perfect storm” that Salyer said she hopes will open doors in schools.
The issue isn’t on the radar of many educators yet, said David Hawkins, the director of policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in Arlington, Va. However, U.S. Army officials are reaching out to the association, he noted, looking for more ways to connect with school counselors and potential recruits.
The military has long had legal access to high school directories. Both the NCLB law and Section 8025 of the new law, known as ESSA, say schools shall provide military recruiters access to the name, address, and telephone listing of each high school student, male or female, unless the parent submits a written request to the school that the child’s information not be released.
Military training also has had a presence in many high schools since 1916 with the establishment of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or JROTC, programs, which now have 3,750 units and 552,000 cadets.
While college is a good option for many students, it’s not for everyone, said Salyer. The ASVAB career-exploration program is free and more than an aptitude test, she said, including an inventory of the student’s interest, detailed training requirements, and a workshop to help students interpret their test results.
“We want high school students to see every pathway they can take to their career—whether college or vo-tech school or the military,” said Salyer.
In Missouri, the assessment is used as one of many measures of college and career readiness in the state’s accountability system. Last year, 416 of Missouri’s 520 school districts participated in ASVAB—most administering the test during the day to a junior class—for a total of about 31,000 assessments. State education officials say they don’t yet know what impact the new education law will have on that picture.
In some states, such as New Jersey, the test is one of the assessments students can use to meet the state’s high school graduation requirements if they attain a certain score on the test. Offering the military exam during the school day in New Jersey is a local decision, and the state does not track the volume year to year, according to Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state education department.
Hawkins of the college-admission counselors’ group expressed concern about tests being used for purposes other than for which they were designed. The Defense Department’s Salyer said the ASVAB was not intended to be used as a measure of career readiness, and she encourages states to do the research necessary if it is being used as an exit exam.
Pat Elder, the executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, said the assessment’s primary purpose is to provide leads for recruiters, and that should be clear in the outreach. “They will do anything they can to get into schools and spin it any way that they want,” said Elder of the military marketing of the exam as career exploration.
The coalition, which lists the administration of the test by state on its website indicates the test is required in about 1,000 high schools. Elder maintains parents aren’t always aware of the test, choices to opt out, or use of the results.
In schools where the test is given schoolwide, Salyer said students may be required to sit for the test, but they are not forced to complete it. “It is always voluntary,” she said. Parents or students can opt out of the exam at any time, and schools can chose whether to have test results shared with recruiters.
Of the 650,000 tests last year, results from about 400,000 were provided to recruiters as leads, according to Salyer. Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, and 2,000 districts bar public high schools from automatically sending student-assessment scores to recruiters.
Even if changes in a state’s overall testing regime do free up additional time in the school day, there’s no guarantee it will open a door for the Defense Department assessment.
Competing for Time
Chris Reeves, a counselor at Beechwood High School in Fort Mitchell, Ky., said his school has not offered the ASVAB to students for several years, despite a “hard push” annually from area military personnel.
“I feel really bad saying no,” said Reeves. “I’ve always felt it was a good test. It’s one of those things. As a school, you are so busy all year, and class time is highly protected. We are looking for any way to gain more class time.”
If testing time decreases under ESSA’s newfound flexibility, Reeves said he anticipates the school will just be happy to have more time for instruction.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Military Eyes Wider Access for Career-Aptitude Test Under ESSA