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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Jacki Lyden.

It's a simple question: If three plus X equals six, what's the value of X? Not exactly advanced calculus, but basic questions like this stump many of this country's high school graduates; so many that nearly one in four potential military recruits can't pass the academic enlistment test.

For recruiters, it's not just an academic challenge. Seventy-five percent of all 17- to 24-year-olds don't meet the basic minimum standards required for military service. They're either physically unfit, have a criminal record or didn't graduate from high school.

Our cover story today: military recruiting. Are we passing the test?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: There's strong, and then there's Army strong.

Unidentified Man #2: The U.S. Air Force. We have the power to go where no one else can.

Unidentified Man #3: America's Navy, a global force for good.

Unidentified Man #4: The few, the proud, the Marines.

LYDEN: Partly because of the tough economic times, recruiters are still meeting their enlistment goals. Some high school graduates see the military as their only viable career option.

But a new report by the nonprofit, the Education Trust, shows that far too few high school graduates have the basic math, reading or problem-solving skills necessary to pass the test, which is officially called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam, or, in military jargon, the ASVAB.

Amy Wilkins is vice president of the Education Trust, and she's responsible for its latest report called Shut Out of the Military.

Ms. AMY WILKINS (Vice President, Education Trust): There's been a lot of conversation in this country about whether or not students are graduating ready for college and ready for career, but a lot of the conversation about career readiness has been in the civilian workforce.

So we asked the question, are they ready for a career in the military? And what we found is that far too few of our students graduate from high school ready to serve our country.

LYDEN: And we're talking about basic problem solving here.

Ms. WILKINS: Yeah. The ASVAB, the term that the Army uses for the test, is the world's most frequently used aptitude test, and it is a battery of several tests, and the Army gives it to potential recruits to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge to meet the needs of the Army.

Now one of the important things about this is because the - many of the jobs in the Army, the workforce of the Army, so closely mirrors the civilian workforce -if kids aren't ready for jobs in the Army, they also aren't ready for jobs in the civilian workforce.

LYDEN: So this might be a loaded question, Amy Wilkins, but why do you think this is happening?

Ms. WILKINS: I think our high schools aren't doing what they need to do to prepare our kids. We know from the colleges around the country that too many kids who enter college need remediation. We hear time and again from civilian employers that our kids don't have the skills to meet the demands of their potential employers, and now we're hearing from the military that our kids aren't skilled enough to serve the country well. I think we have a big problem with American high schools.

LYDEN: How well do students need to score out of a hundred points?

Ms. WILKINS: To get into the Army, just to enter the Army, you need to get a score of 31. But then scores between 31 and 99, the top score, where you score in that range tells the Army or sort of slots you in to different opportunities in the Army. The higher the score, the more opportunities you have. The lower the score, the fewer opportunities you have.

So we all hear about things like the ability to get scholarships in the Army, the ability to get really sophisticated training. If you score very low, those opportunities aren't available to you.

LYDEN: And you found that this also falls along minority lines in terms of ranking.

Ms. WILKINS: Yes. African-American kids and Latino kids are far less likely than white kids to earn the types of scores that'll make them eligible for scholarships and sophisticated training opportunities.

LYDEN: And what's the particular problem, math?

Ms. WILKINS: Math, problem solving, science knowledge. It's sort of across the board.

LYDEN: Yet the Defense Department is saying, hey, we're on target for recruitment. We're meeting our goals. How do these low scores affect that?

Ms. WILKINS: Well, I think, and I think what the folks over at the Department of Defense say, is that the bad economy is helping somewhat. And so as we think about the economy recovering, I think that may hurt our recruitment.

You also see - again, we only looked at, you know, people pretty fresh out of high school. What the Army's also seeing is they're seeing older people come back, so some of this, you know, people changing careers, people who lost a job coming back and looking to join the Army.

So we were looking at young people. Right now, they don't need as many young people because they have older people coming back.

LYDEN: That's Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust. She helped orchestrate the nonprofit research organization's most recent study, Shut Out of the Military.

Amy Wilkins, thank you.

Ms. WILKINS: Thank you.

LYDEN: Now test scores aren't the only thing keeping potential recruits out of the military. Earlier this year, we learned that nine million Americans of prime recruiting age are too heavy to enlist. Tack on criminal records, and the pool for military recruitment shrinks even more.

And that concerns people like Jamie Barnett. He's a retired rear admiral in the Navy and a member of the organization Mission Readiness, a coalition of former military leaders who see these high ineligibility rates as a matter of national security.

Rear Admiral JAMIE BARNETT (Retired, U.S. Navy; Mission Readiness): The military is much more technologically sophisticated now. We need people who can operate complex sensor systems, weapons systems, aircraft, nuclear reactors.

LYDEN: In a nutshell, critical thinking, solid arithmetic.

Rear Adm. BARNETT: Problem solving. And the other thing about is we also know some of the answers. We know what we can do, but they take a long time to take effect. We have to start now.

LYDEN: Your group, Mission Readiness, urged that Congress pass the child nutrition bill to help reduce childhood obesity and expand the pool of qualified young adults. So what will you do with this new information? How are you going to challenge government and schools?

Rear Adm. BARNETT: We are urging Congress to really consider and incorporate early childhood education into its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act, formerly known as No Child Left Behind, and basically shifting away from a kindergarten-through-12th-grade concept to a pre-K, pre-kindergarten.

There's great research that shows, I mean, it's already in place, and it's numerous studies that have shown that it can have a real effect. Basically what it showed, that if you start early, you can vastly increase the number of graduates in high school years later.

Conversely, one of the studies also showed that if you have this intervention early on, that you can also keep kids on the right side of the law. There was an alarming indication that the kids who were not in these early childhood education programs, like 70 percent of them had some problem with the law by the age of 18.

LYDEN: When did it happen, do you think? I mean, your group, Mission Readiness, did you look at each other and say, you know, we're just headed in the wrong direction here?

Rear Adm. BARNETT: I was the director of Naval Education and Training at the Pentagon as one of my last tours in the Navy. So it was something I was aware of very much for several years now.

But all of us have this passion for young people, and so many of them want to be able to serve their country, and it's just tragic for them not to be able to because of one of these factors and especially because of educational attainment, because that also has a pretty significant impact not only in national security but our economic security, not to mention the achievement and accomplishment of that individual.

LYDEN: Given the current political climate and the idea that some people think government's done too much, how confident are you that you can intervene and get behind something like early childhood education?

Rear Adm. BARNETT: Well, you know, I think information leads to bipartisanship, and this is one that I think appeals to both sides of the aisle.

You know, national security, plus our children, are two things that I think appeal to everyone. And when we look at these data and indicate that we've got a problem both nationally, for national security and economically, I think that'll spur action.

LYDEN: That was Retired Navy Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett with the group Mission Readiness.

Thank you very much for coming in.

Rear Adm. BARNETT: Thank you so much, Jacki.

LYDEN: Despite these obstacles, Curtis Gilroy says recruitment for all branches of the military is on target. Gilroy is the Defense Department's point person for recruitment of the active duty force.

Dr. CURTIS GILROY (Accession Policy Director, U.S. Defense Department): It's important to recognize that enlistment standards really have not changed at all over the years. The services continue to meet not only their numerical recruiting goals but also their goals in terms of education and in terms of aptitude.

Aptitude is really important. Individuals need to be able to think and solve problems, have an understanding of mathematics, express themselves verbally and so on. And we find, through empirical evidence, that the higher-aptitude individuals are much easier to train, and they perform much better on the job.

The other aspect or dimension of education is the possession of a high school diploma. The high school diploma graduates have a proven record of successfully completing their term of enlistment. And for that reason, we're also troubled by the relatively high high-school dropout rates, particularly in inner cities and other disadvantaged areas.

LYDEN: But some years ago, the Army did start to accept recruits with lower academic test scores and prior felony arrest records. So standards have changed.

Dr. GILROY: Well, no, not really. It's a question of the extent to which each of the services permits the enlistment of those with certain waivers.

Waivers have always been a part of the enlistment process, and they go up and down, depending upon the particular challenges of the recruiting environment.

LYDEN: Has there been any thinking outside the box to address this, something the Army and the military might do?

Dr. GILROY: Oh, we're doing a fair amount, all the services, including the Army. Our recruiters, of which there are 15 to 17,000 of them today for the active duty force alone, are doing their best to convince young people to stay in school and to study. That's the most important thing.

Getting that high school diploma is a ticket not only to the military but, of course, to colleges and universities and for private-sector employment.

LYDEN: So what do you think about the Education Trust report? Is it a blinking red light?

Dr. GILROY: Well, it's a very interesting report, which unfortunately paints an accurate picture of a significant issue facing education in this country today. Now it's not new. This finding of relatively low standardized test scores of many of our youth is an issue that the Defense Department has been concerned about for some time.

We're the largest employer of youth in the nation, of course, and we're concerned that the pool from which we draw our recruits is shrinking.

LYDEN: That's Curtis Gilroy of the Defense Department. He spoke with me from his office at the Pentagon.

And thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. GILROY: Thank you, Jacki. My pleasure.

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