If you are a public school superintendent or an advocate for black kids and other minority children who cares deeply about kids—yours or anyone else’s—if you could see what I see and hear what I hear, it would break your heart.
Every Thursday evening, I have the privilege of testing young men and women seeking to enlist in the Armed Services of the U.S. A significant majority of these young people (90+ percent) are recent high school graduates and high school seniors. They come from high schools throughout Northeast Indiana and they are seeking a place for themselves in society. They come to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which is used to demonstrate enlistment eligibility.
Eligibility for enlistment is determined by the “AFQT” score, which is a component of the ASVAB Battery made up of four of the ASVAB’s ten tests: “Arithmetic Reasoning” (arithmetic word problems); “Word Knowledge,” “Paragraph comprehension,” and “Mathematics Knowledge.” A minimum score of 31 is required for enlistment eligibility, although some branches require a higher score.
Even though a score of 31 makes them eligible for enlistment, prospects are considered “desirable candidates’ and qualify for enlistment incentives only if they achieve a score of 50 or better.
One can reasonably conclude that a young man or woman who is unable to qualify for even the most basic jobs in the military services will, similarly, be unable to qualify for even the most basic jobs in civilian society. The candidates who are eligible to enlist but fall short of the threshold that would designate them as desirable candidates, will be assigned the least desirable jobs.
Over the past year or more, I have tested approximately 700 public school students. Although I am not authorized to provide specific data, roughly 30 percent of the young high school graduates and high school seniors who took the exam were unable to achieve the minimum score of 31. Given that these are percentile scores based on the data from the millions of ASVAB exams administered during the last decade or longer, the outcomes I witness are not unexpected. Approximately 55 percent of the 700 high school graduates and high school seniors were unable to achieve an AFQT score of 50 or higher.
On a given Thursday evening, I might test anywhere from 5 to 20 young people. There is always a sense of nervous anticipation as candidates arrive for testing and I can hear excitement in their voices. From their recruiters, they have heard what the various branches have to offer, and the benefits are substantial.
Some of the questions and comments I get while checking them in for the exam are:
- “Will I know my score, tonight?” and the answer is “Yes”
- “Will I know what kind of jobs I will be qualified for?” I explain that their recruiter will help them understand their scores.
- “I hope I do well because I would like to do “___________.”
- “Is this test hard? I really need to pass!”
Others will talk about how hard they have been studying in preparation for the test, not realizing how little that will help.
Teachers and other educators know how ineffective it is to cram the night before a test if students have not taken their classroom assignments seriously. We know it is impossible to make up, with a few hours of cramming, what takes most of us 12 or 13 years to learn and master.
As I monitor the candidates during the test, it is sad to see the discouragement set in as they begin to realize how poorly prepared they are for the material on which they are being tested. Their body language quickly reflects their discouragement: their shoulders begin to sag, they begin to fidget in their seats, or start looking around to see what other examinees are doing. When they begin racing through the questions, it is clear they have given up and are no longer trying; a strategy they have learned all too well.
I once had a young man raise his hand and then ask me one of the most profound questions I’ve ever been asked:
“How are we supposed to know this stuff?”
I am not permitted to answer questions about the exam, but I would have loved to have been able to answer that question. Were they never told that learning “this stuff” was the purpose of going to school?
This high school graduate became one of the 3 to 5 percent of the examinees who achieved a single digit score, meaning they are functionally illiterate.
Over two-hundred times in the last year, as they left the testing room with score in hand, young men and women were confronted with the stone-cold reality that there are no good opportunities for them, whether in the military or in civilian life. Their faces tell the story. They are permitted to take a retest in 30 days, and again after another 30, and yet again 6 months after the 2nd retest. It is exceedingly rare, however, for them to improve their score well enough to reach the “eligibility threshold,” let alone the “desirability threshold.”
I have been administering the ASVAB for fourteen years and have seen this story play out over 3000 times, whether testing in Fort Wayne, which is my primary testing site, or occasionally in South Bend, Gary, Muncie, Lafayette, or Kokomo, Indiana. It is a story that is repeated in communities all over the U.S. as millions of young American men and women are leaving school without the knowledge and skills they will need to have meaningful choices in life. These young men and women come from all racial, ethnic, and demographic groups but a disproportionate percentage are young blacks; testimony to the fact that the performance gap or achievement gap between black students and their white classmates, is real.
It is unfortunate that public school superintendents and principals are not present to see their former students facing such stark realities; that they are not witnessing this tragedy up close and personal.
The roughly 55 percent of the candidates who score below 50 and are, thus, unable to qualify for enlistment incentives, are only marginally less at risk than those unable to score 31.
I ask the reader to understand that this population of young Americans represents only those who have sufficient ambition to, at least, seek out a better life for themselves. Many of the young men and women who leave school with minimal academic achievements do not even try to seek out opportunities because they have given up all hope. That many of this latter group of young Americans, black men especially, will end up in local, state, and federal correction facilities or meet an early, violent death is a national tragedy of immense proportions with staggering ramifications for the future of the American democracy.
All hope is not lost, however.
This is a tragedy that can so easily be avoided if the leaders of public education (our superintendents and policy makers) would first, acknowledge that what we are doing in our public schools does not work for disadvantaged children; and second, would accept responsibility for finding a solution.
It can be avoided if advocates for black children, Hispanic children, and other disadvantaged children would come together and demand action to address this civil rights issue of our times with the same relentless determination as the civil rights heroes of the 1950s and 60s. I can assure these advocates that the people who promote “school choice” are not their friends and do not have the best interests of disadvantaged kids in mind.
This is an American tragedy of staggering proportions and it happens only because the education process at work in our public schools is not structured to give disadvantaged children the time, care, and attention they need to overcome their disadvantages.
Many Americans are quick to blame teachers, but this is grossly unfair. Public school teachers are victims of the same flaws in our systems of public education, as are their students. Teachers are too busy trying to make a flawed education process work for as many of their students as possible.
Public school superintendents, and to a lesser extent, their principals are the professionals who have the best opportunity to bring about meaningful change. If superintendents have underperforming schools in their districts, they have a moral obligation to join forces with their colleagues and shout, loudly, that it is time to transform public education in America. I offer my education model as a starting point. Please check it out at http://www.melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/