MIAMI — Nearly one-fourth of the students who try to join the U.S. Army fail its entrance exam, painting a grim picture of an education system that produces graduates who can't answer basic math, science and reading questions, according to a new study released Tuesday.
The report by the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based children's advocacy group, bolsters a growing worry among military and education leaders that the pool of young people qualified for military service will grow too small.
"Too many of our high school students are not graduating ready to begin college or a career — and many are not eligible to serve in our armed forces," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press.
The effect of the low eligibility rate might not be noticeable now — the Department of Defense says it is meeting its recruitment goals — but that could change as the economy improves, said retired Navy Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett.
"If you can't get the people that you need, there's a potential for a decline in your readiness," said Barnett, who is part of the group Mission: Readiness, a coalition of retired military leaders trying to bring awareness to the high ineligibility rates.
The report by the Education Trust found that about 23 percent of high school graduates don't get the minimum score needed on the enlistment test to join any branch of the military.
The military exam results are also worrisome because the test is given to a limited pool of people: Pentagon data show that 75 percent of those age 17 to 24 don't qualify to take the test because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn't graduate from high school.
The study examined the scores of about 350,000 high school graduates, ages 17 to 20, who took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery between 2004 and 2009. About half of them joined the Army.
Recruits must score at least a 31 out of 99 on the first stage of the three-hour test to get into the Army. The Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard recruits need higher scores.
The study shows wide disparities in scores among white and minority students. Nearly 40 percent of blacks and 30 percent of Hispanics don't pass, compared with 16 percent of whites.