We’re far from the only ones to note that West Point has lowered its entry standards and that this isn’t good for the Army.
A group of authors studying officer accessions standards (Arthur Coumbe, Steven Condly, and William Skimmyhorn, two of whom are at West Point now) from the War College wrote in 2017 in “Still Soldiers and Scholars? An Analysis of Army Officer Testing” that West Point’s decline in standards and status is real.
Briefly: The Army’s mental testing standards for officers have declined. This is a problem because the modern battlefield is increasingly complex with commensurately higher demands on its officers. Further, the military cannot import talent–it must rely on accessions and development for its strategic thinkers. The talent required for top-level thinking cannot, despite wishful thinking otherwise, be taught. This puts a “premium on officer selection and on native intellectual ability, since… intelligence is the single most important factor in who does and who does not think critically and strategically. For many observers, this is an extremely uncomfortable and unpalatable fact.”
The book goes on to describe the decline in standards at West Point (and using OCS and ROTC for comparison), the circumstances surrounding the reduced standards, and the series of pressures militating against raising them. It specifically refers to West Point testing in the 20th century and up into recent years (2010+). These circumstances include:
- Increasing emphasis on non-cognitive measures and retention
- growth of military competition for talent
- high levels of overall college attendance
- explosion of college financial aid and funding
- Declining prestige and attractiveness of military careers
- US population vs officer corps growth
- achieving diversity goals
But this does not remove the need for finding, recruiting, and retaining top-flight talent.
The authors are thorough and the findings support what we’ve been finding in our posts: that the decline in standards is real; that “non-cognitive measures” are not as important to outcomes as cognitive measures; and that the Academy, far from remedying the situation, spends more time and money in a misplaced attempt to build prestige through diversity initiatives and football uniforms than it does upholding its responsibility to defend our children’s country with officer corps excellence.
Excerpts are below. The book is well worth reading, and, as a bonus to the reader, is free for your time. Enjoy.
Between the advent of the AVF in 1973 and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, West Point continued its qualitative decline relative to America’s most competitive schools. By the mid-1980s, West Point stood between Harvard and Penn State on the qualitative index of competitive colleges (see Figure 8-3). This was admittedly still a respectable position but it represented a decided step down from the halcyon days ofP280
the Academy prior to World War II.
Test scores have dropped and continue dropping. The gauge of other schools is helpful as a benchmark particularly with the changes in standardized testing over time.
The Army’s lowering of accessions standards and the erosion of quality markers also helped raise officer
production. During this period, the number of waivers issued by the commissioning sources shot up sharply
while scores on standardized tests like the SAT (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the
Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) declined. At the U.S. Military Academy (USMA),
the slide away from elite status continued. With the re-norming of the SAT in 1995, SAT scores at institutions such as Ohio State shot up sharply. The average score at the USMA, on the other hand, remained almost flat. This was tantamount to a decline in test scores. The de facto decline in scores allowed schools like Ohio State, which in the 1980s was substantially below the USMA in terms of the selectivity of undergraduate admissions, to rise up to West Point’s level of undergraduate selectivity.
In Figure 9-1, we elaborate on West Point’s continuing fall from elite status by providing data on the304
intellectual ability of the lower quartile of students at West Point and select institutions since 2001 (based on data availability from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System [IPEDS]). We explore these trends
to identify if the trends in the average measures discussed above (see Figure 8-3 in Chapter 8) are hiding
changes in the variance of the data. The data show that since 2001, the 25th percentile score at West Point
declined slightly and then increased to initial levels in absolute terms. In addition, it has fallen relative to
Lehigh and Ohio State, both of which increased their 25th percentile scores over time. The changes are small
but suggest that even if West Point cadets are keeping pace on average, they are also falling behind in the
lower quartile of the distribution.
Despite the marketing department’s hype about how highly selective West Point is, we confirm that it is no longer elite.
“Qualified”, as we have noted before, is (or was) a subjective description, not an objective bar.
The files of the candidates who had been determined to be qualified (provided that they received a nomination, of course) were sent to the admissions committee for a final decision. The committee at this283
time was comprised of a number of junior and senior officers who were on the staff or faculty of the USMA.
The admissions decision itself, although constrained by the number of openings in the entering class, was
largely subjective. Committee members evaluated the files of candidates and selected the ones that they felt
were most qualified.79
We weren’t the only ones to figure out that low standards have big costs:
Academy officials also believed that West Point had set its standards for performance on standardized tests too low. They stressed the importance of meeting admissions goals in the scholar category and of reducing the large number of high-risk candidates being admitted—both of which could be addressed by raising minimum scores on the SAT and ACT.287
This reduced reliance on test scores was done not to find and produce best quality officer but to generate highest quantity of officer retention. We hear this a lot: “test scores aren’t everything and they don’t predict who will be the best officers.” The book points out that this is true, if you (as the Army) defines “the best officers” as “the ones who stay in the longest.”
During this era, West Point became concerned about not only the retention of cadets through the349
Academy experience, but of its graduates in the Army after graduation. As a result, West Point adjusted its
admissions policies and standards to boost retention. It began in 1947 when the USMA introduced a personality survey to assess a candidate’s potential to navigate through West Point successfully and the
likelihood of his remaining in service for a career. This new tact was also evident in West Point’s adoption of
the “whole man score” in 1958.28 The whole man score was devised to select not necessarily the smartest or
most intellectually talented candidates, but those who were, in the words of one of the Army’s social scientists, “best motivated for attendance at the Academy and for a subsequent Army career [emphasis added].” The score was a composite of various academic measures, measures of physical proficiency, and evaluations of leadership potential.29 It differed from earlier admissions procedures in the weight accorded non-academic factors in the selection process. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was becoming apparent, and would become even more apparent in later decades, that abundant intelligence and retention in the Army were not positively correlated. Consequently, rigorous, criterion-referenced tests of academic aptitude and attainment, which in decades past had regulated entrance into the USMA, were abandoned in favor of norm-referenced achievement and aptitude tests and psychometric survey instruments that identified candidates most motivated toward staying in the Army. This process, which began in the years after World War II and gained momentum in the decade thereafter, accelerated West Point’s slide out of the ranks of elite undergraduate institutions.
And unfortunately a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean a whole lot:
Complacency or wishful thinking (or perhaps both) on the part of the Army was partly responsible
for this retreat from cognitive tests for officers. The Army assumed after World War II that acceptance into
college and the attainment of a baccalaureate degree would be sufficient to ensure the requisite degree of
intellectual attainment in the officer corps. As the baccalaureate degree lost much of its value over the years,
the Army did not adjust its assumptions or methods to take this into account. Indeed, it actually increased its
reliance on the bachelor’s degree as a screening device. It continued to consider, and in fact still does today,
the baccalaureate degree as a credential certifying the necessary level of intellectual attainment and mental
aptitude. Only recently has this begun to change.
Moreover, the requirement for officers from ROTC and the USMA to have a bachelor’s degree led the350
social scientists who developed the non-cognitive tests for officers to assume that most officers took the SAT
or the American College Testing (ACT) exam. This, to our dismay, is simply not true. In fact, between 40 and
60 percent of the Army officers on active duty in recent years have no evidence in their records that they took
such a standardized test.
We and others noted that intelligence is bad for an Army career. Perhaps the question should be “why” instead of trying to backfill the officers that left.
Since, generally speaking, abundant intelligence was negatively correlated with remaining in the
Army, it had to be sacrificed to increase career commitment and raise retention rates in the officer corps. This realization began to inform all officer accessions policies. To paraphrase one observer, the Army gave
up on “motivating the educated” (they simply would not stay in the Army past their initial service obligation in anything near the numbers required) and embraced the concept of “educating the motivated.” It
might not have described the situation accurately, but it did get the point across clearly. Motivation replaced
intelligence as the most important consideration in officer selection.
Various private and government-affiliated research entities led, or at least provided justification for, this
“race to the bottom.” Numerous studies on officer motivation and career success typically led to prescriptions that involved substituting less rigorous tests of mental ability for more rigorous ones. They also involved adding factors measuring various non-cognitive qualities into the mix, and in the process made
intellect less important in the selection process. West Point’s whole man score is an excellent example.
At West Point, the race to the bottom began immediately after the war when inventories attempting to measure personality and background became more prominent parts of the admissions process and the rigor in admissions tests was reduced.
In addition, past efforts to construct officer job descriptions largely ignored the fact that the Army353
was selecting colonels and generals at the same time it was selecting lieutenants. There is, after all, no lateral
entry for line officers.33 Some observers have called for the Army to use broad measures of intellectual ability in selecting tomorrow’s strategic thinkers.34 Only in this way, they argue, can the Army produce the type
of mentally agile, adaptable, and innovative leaders 353 we are told are necessary to deal with the myriad
challenges of the 21st century. To date, the Army has not been able to overcome these challenges and has
exerted limited effort to focus on quality over quantity. As a result, it has never established meaningful
intelligence standards for lieutenants or any other officer rank.35
Diversity goals have had a significant impact on admissions standards.
ACHIEVING DIVERSITY GOALS353
The Army’s attempt to achieve diversity goals has also contributed to the dilution of its intellectual
screening procedures. This is true for two principal reasons. First, a smaller proportion of the nation’s
African-Americans and Hispanics than whites attend and graduate from college. Thus, the base from which
the Army can draw is relatively small for certain minorities. Second, the nation’s most selective colleges and the commissioning programs of the other services are generally more attractive to minority applicants than are the Army’s commissioning programs. Consequently, West Point and the Army ROTC are compelled to accept many minority applicants who are not accepted by highly competitive colleges or by the service academies or ROTC programs of the other services. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines are pursuing many of the same candidates and, in this competition, the Army usually loses out. Thus, the Army has had to lower its accessions standards to achieve what it considers to be a desirable demographic distribution in its pre-commissioning programs.
The Academy’s official explanation for its decision to eliminate the achievement tests as an admissionsP282
requirement was that these tests had only limited usefulness in predicting success as a cadet, that they were too expensive, and that they added too much complexity to and unnecessarily slowed down the admissions
process.72 These considerations certainly played a part in the decision but minority recruitment was undoubtedly also a factor. West Point in the era of the AVF was very concerned with boosting minority (and especially African American) admissions. African Americans as a group did not attain high scores on these tests.
We add here that the attempt to “achieve diversity goals” implies a passive voice; diversity goals set by whom? For what purpose? This was not produced in a vacuum and is a political artifact.
This book has suggested that, contrary to popular opinion and scholarly assertion, the rigor of the Army’s
intellectual selection instruments has deteriorated over the course of the last century. In all three of the Army’s principal commissioning sources—the USMA, ROTC, and OCS program—the trend has been toward declining standards and declining (relative) scores. The size of the Army, changing economic paradigms, declining prestige of an Army career, expansion of college aid, “unbalanced” college growth, competition
from the other services, increasing emphasis placed on officer retention, and diversity considerations all help
explain this trend. This trend of deteriorating mental standards, strangely enough, has generally escaped the notice of social scientists and historians, who in their studies depict the history of officer testing as one of uninterrupted progress.
In addition, there should be explicit accession standards attached to these tests, both in terms of a minimum and an average… What the Army does not need is more studies suggesting that high mental ability has not been found to be positively correlated with retention in the Army. This has been stated by numerous studies in a variety of ways. The Army’s interests could be better served by focusing on what programs or incentives could keep highly intelligent people in the officer corps. To meet the challenges of the future, the Army needs to retain people with many outside employment options, not those with limited outside employment options.354
Finally, we acknowledge that if current compensation remains fixed and the Army raises its accession and promotions standards relative to cognitive testing, there would likely be shortfalls in officer production and staffing. Conversely, if current compensation remains fixed and the Army wants to staff the force, it will need to maintain its low mental standards.359
There is much more in the book than we could fit here without copy-pasting the whole thing and we recommend reviewing it on your own.
We were frankly shocked that this was a war college publication. But we were pleased to find that it was written, was thoughtful and more rigorous than part-time bloggers, and (selfishly) that it also supported our observations. Its publishing means that the facts and observations of the last century have not been completely glossed over or hidden by careerist field-grades.
We are less optimistic about the possibility for changing approaches given the macro factors identified by the authors, plus officer and politician careerist tendencies. Unfortunately, the Academy cannot solve the Army retention problem. But in our opinion it has the opportunity to make discretionary improvements, and it should do what it can.