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Crashing Into a Low Bar

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Let me be clear from the outset: I do not believe many, if any, education advocates look at our public education systems and see the status quo as acceptable. It so clearly isn't that people who toss around that accusation are just throwing bombs.

There, are, however, plenty of people who attempt to explain away reported deficiencies in student achievement and post-secondary readiness by questioning the validity of assessments, saying that there is more excellent teaching and high-level learning going on in the nation's schools than the most strident reformers want us to believe. And, of course, there are people who point to very real societal inequities as the main culprit in sub-par student achievement. Some also say disengaged parents hurt the achievement of some kids.

All that may well be true. But no matter what explanations one might care to devise, there is no explaining away this new report by the Education Trust. The Trust examined results of the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery, a series baseline aptitude tests to qualify people for admission to the military, and found that shockingly high percentages of high school graduates, especially students of color, couldn't clear this low bar.

The Trust examined the scores of 350,000 high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 20 who took the tests between 2004 and 2009. Here is what researchers found:

About 23 percent of the test-takers in our sample failed to achieve a 31-- the qualifying score -- on the (tests). Among white test-takers, 16 percent scored below the minimum score required by the Army. For Hispanic candidates, the rate of ineligibility was 29 percent. And for African-American youth, it was 39 percent. These dismally high ineligible rates for minority youth in our subsample of data are similar to the ineligible rates of all minority Army applicants as recorded over the last ten years.

As Trust President Kati Haycock wrote in her preface to the report, these results should serve as a wake-up call to high school educators.

... because this shatters the comfortable myth that academically underprepared students will find in the military a second-chance pathway to success. For too long, we educators have dismissed worries about the low academic achievement of "those students" with the thought that "if they're not prepared for college or career, a stint in the service will do 'em some good."

Actually, "those students" will not have the military as a choice. Just as they have not been prepared to enter college or find a good job in the civilian world, they have not been prepared to qualify for the military.

Young people of color who pass the tests generally do so with lower scores than white test-takers achieve. And this has serious real-world consequences:

Since these scores determine eligibility for training opportunities, financial rewards, and scholarships, this means that young people of color have more limited opportunities in the Army once they get in than do their white peers.

If there's any good news here, it's that Colorado as a whole does better than the national average on the military aptitude tests. Some 17.6 percent of Colorado test-takers scored too low to be eligible for military service. But the number rose to 33 percent ineligibility for African Americans (compared to 39 percent nationally) and 28 percent for Latinos (29 percent nationally). Still, those are not numbers that should cause jubilation.

Not to stuff coal in anyone's stocking, but this report provides some food for thought over the holidays. How have we gotten to this point, and how the heck do we extricate ourselves from the mess? If you believe in the validity of the recently released 2009 international PISA exams, our top students are getting their clocks cleaned by top students in other countries. Meanwhile, this new report shows that students further down the ladder lack the skills to do, well, much of anything beyond manual labor.

And with that, I wish you happy holidays.