US military recruiting is scrambling to meet goals. Now it seems allowing potential recruits to use electronic calculators for entrance examinations may be the ticket to fewer disqualifications. And why not? It may be grasping at straws, but the stakes are critical for achieving and keeping required force levels. Furthermore, the rules for taking college entrance tests like the ACT and SAT allow for handheld calculators.
To some extent, all military departments are experiencing a recruiting crisis, and not one has broken the code in persuading young people to wear a uniform and stay. Writing for Fox News, Michael Lee said:
“The Pentagon is considering a policy that would allow military applicants to use calculators on entrance exams as it continues to seek a way to combat the ongoing recruiting crisis … The new policy would change how applicants take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. Many young Americans have struggled to score high enough on the test to qualify for military service … The test has become a barrier for some potential recruits who would have otherwise joined the military.”
Here are sample ASVAB questions in the “Arithmetic Reasoning” category taken from the official ASVAB website. “If the tire of a car rotates at a constant speed of 552 times in one minute, how many times will the tire rotate in half-an-hour?” Or “One in every 9 people in a town vote for party A. All others vote for party B. How many people vote for party B in a town of 810?” That’s right, the dreaded word problems. At least the questions didn’t start with, “Two trains leave two different towns. The first leaves at 2:00 p.m. every Thursday, and the second leaves … ” But if you look at the sample questions, you need to be able to think through what sort of mathematical equation gets the answer and know there are 30 minutes in a half-hour, of course. The calculator simply allows doing the arithmetic faster.
If you don’t know how to set up the problem up in the first place, having a calculator won’t make much difference. Since each section of the ASVAB is timed, the calculator allows those who know how to solve the problem but are slower in doing the math to be more efficient.
This initiative to help increase the number of recruits eligible for active duty is hardly a solution. It’s more like applying a Band-Aid to a deep chest wound. Furthermore, permitting the use of calculators for the ASVAB seems like a decision that does not require much analysis or deliberation. But for the ponderous Pentagon bureaucracy, such a break with tradition has potentially far-reaching consequences, especially when facing the Chinese.
“The Department is carefully considering the use of calculators for the ASVAB. We are taking a systematic approach, which will assess the impact of calculator use, and we are developing a way forward for calculator inclusion based on best practices in test development and psychometric theory,” the Washington Examiner learned from a Pentagon official on Aug. 21.
If history serves as a model, this process will entail a five-year study, at a cost of at least millions, resulting in a 1,500-page analysis by McKinsey and Company, Boston Consulting Group, or Booz Allen Hamilton that concludes calculators are helpful to do math problems. Can you imagine what great shape the United States would be in if the Defense Department had spent as much time developing a strategy for helping Ukraine prevail over Russia?
The Pentagon anticipates criticism of the calculator initiative. “One Defense Department official said some of the difficulty in crafting a policy allowing calculators has been a fear over whether lawmakers will characterize the Pentagon as lowering standards,” Steve Beynon reported in Military.com.
Using the standards argument may not be as effective as it once was. With the emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion as criteria for selection for just about everything in the Armed Forces, from promotions to base selection to identifying individuals for positions, whether electronic assistance is used to take the ASVAB seems trivial. If a handheld calculator helps otherwise qualified military service candidates be more efficient in taking the entrance exam, make it happen. Let the key tapping begin.
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