Every school year, at hundreds of high schools across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, students are asked - and sometimes required - to take a vocational aptitude test with a strange-sounding name - the ASVAB, which stands for Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Since Vietnam, the test has been a powerful peacetime recruiting tool for the Pentagon; hundreds of thousands of student scores have routinely been sent to the military each year, typically leading to follow-up calls from recruiters.
"ASVAB is well known as an aptitude screen for military enlistment," said Jane Arabian, the assistant director for enlistment standards at the Department of Defense, adding that the test is given mainly as a "public service" career guide to students.
But with the nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, school districts have in recent years been opting out of the test in droves. The trend is very pronounced in the Philadelphia area, where not a single suburban Pennsylvania or South Jersey school district still requires students to take the ASVAB test, something done in many schools until recently.
An analysis of Pentagon data for Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and for the nation, shows the strength of the backlash. Nationally, the number of students taking the test has dropped 19 percent in the last five years, accelerating a decline that began in 1990.
Even with the decline, the numbers tested and the number of recruits yielded are still sizable. About 621,000 students nationwide took the ASVAB test in 2006-07, yielding 22,000 military recruits - 9.3 percent of total enlistments, according to the Department of Defense.
Test takers have no say in whether their information goes to the military, and parents aren't required to give their approval. That has changed in a growing number of districts where protests and privacy concerns have led to new rules requiring parental permission.
In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, 607 schools gave the test in 2006-07, 33 fewer than the previous year. In the three years from the 2004-05 school year to 2006-07, the number of students tested in both states fell by about 10 percent, from 33,658 to 30,186. Nationally, the three-year decline was 9 percent.
In the Philadelphia region, 2,766 students in 51 of 167 districts took the ASVAB in 2006-07, down 26 percent from 2004-05.
Of the top 10 Pennsylvania schools that gave the test in 2006-07, two dropped it in 2007-08; one switched to a voluntary test, leading to a drop in test takers from 317 to 28. McDowell High School, outside Erie, which gave the test to 540 students last year, is considering dropping it or making it voluntary.
Delaware County's Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, a post-secondary school that trains students for skilled jobs, gives the test as an entrance exam. Only the results of students not accepted are sent to the military.
Philadelphia's Bartram High School stopped giving the test in 2004, principal Constance McAlister said, because students "feel that the test is a recruiting tool - they and their families are hesitant about taking it."
Philadelphia's Franklin Towne Charter High School stopped giving the test this year; all 10th graders had taken it.
In Luzerne County's Pittston Area School District, near Wilkes-Barre, virtually all the juniors took the test until the 2006-07 school year, when it became voluntary. Numbers dropped from 211 to 59, then rebounded this year to 169.
When it was required, "students weren't coming to school [on the day of the ASVAB]; they were uncomfortable taking the test," because of its military connections, said guidance counselor Coreen Milazzo.
Of the 11,900 schools nationwide that gave the test, 92 percent allowed military recruiters to receive test results and personal contact information.
That is changing in some school districts, which give the test but refuse to release any information, like Los Angeles; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Lower Merion and Collingswood.
Only a few districts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have stopped sending information to recruiters, but many no longer require the test, asking students to sign up instead. Others stopped offering it.
The test, which is free to schools and costs the Department of Defense about $10 million a year to administer, has the highest concentration of takers in the West and South. Almost half of all 11th-grade public school students in South Dakota took it in 2005-06, the latest year figures are available. More than a third took it in Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas. Most test takers are public school students, but it is also given at private schools.
Recruiters already get contact information for all students under the federal No Child Left Behind law unless parents or students opt out. The ASVAB results go further: They flag for recruiters those students qualified for military careers and give them detailed information about their abilities and interests.
Civilian Defense Department employees, seeking to "market" the ASVAB, attend educator conferences, give talks in schools, and can spend up to $1,000 for events where they make presentations or give training to school personnel, including guidance counselors.
Arabian, the Department of Defense assistant director, said "the program is most important to students to give them choices, to let them see what kind of opportunities are out there, what their skills and abilities are."
But a 2005 Department of Defense document says that its purpose is also to "provide the military services with access to the high school market and recruiters with prequalified recruiting leads."
For some students, the ASVAB, which has eight subtests, including basic math and English, general science and technical areas like electronics, auto and shop, and mechanical comprehension, helps narrow career choices.
Jorge Colon, 16, signed up this spring to take the three-hour test at his Pemberton Township high school in Burlington County because he's interested in the military.
As routinely occurs, the test was administered by uniformed military personnel. A civilian Department of Defense employee came back to the school to talk to him about his results and his interests. Colon said he was told, "I'm strong in a hands-on job; not really good for, like, medical services - I'm good in science like in chemistry or biology but not as doctor or dentist or nurse."
Soon after, Colon was contacted by recruiters from the Army, Marines and Navy. Based on the test results, he got offers for military jobs he would qualify for, he said. "They told me that my score was really good and they went on to explain the benefits of their branch," he said. Colon said he did not know that taking the test would result in being contacted by recruiters but that he didn't mind.
The experience moved him closer to a military career, he said.
Amanda Arena-Miller had a very different encounter with the ASVAB as a junior in 2005 at Southern Lehigh High School in Lehigh County. All juniors had to take the test unless their parents filled out a form requesting they be excused.
On the test day, "you were assigned by your last names to certain rooms; they didn't even tell us what we were doing," she said. "It was 'Take the ASVAB,' just like 'Take the PSSAs,' just like all the standardized tests."
Amanda's mother, Rona Arena-Miller, tried to get her daughter excused from the test but sent in a letter, not the school's form. Her daughter was told to sit for the test.
In the fall of 2005, Peter Crownfield, an activist with the Lehigh-Pocono Committee of Concern, (LEPOCO) a peace group, started asking Lehigh Valley schools to give the test only to students who signed up for it and whose parents agreed in writing.
Southern Lehigh made the test voluntary; the number of juniors tested there fell from 220 in the spring of 2005 to 11 the next year. The low level has continued.
Arena-Miller said she'd prefer that the school drop the test altogether. "If a kid is interested in the military, they find a way to contact a recruiter," she said.
Sentiments such as that have sparked parent and student campaigns to limit recruiter ASVAB access in many school districts.
The 693,600-student Los Angeles Unified School District mandated this school year that no ASVAB information go to recruiters. About 2,700 students still took the test. "A lot of career advisers see the value of the ASVAB, but a lot of kids didn't want the information released to the military," said Janice Davis, director of high school programs.
In the 137,745-student Montgomery County Public Schools system in Maryland, Pat Elder, a peace activist and parent, successfully campaigned in 2005 to keep test results and contact information from recruiters and require parent permission.
"If you go to the [ASVAB Career Exploration] Web site, they don't mention even what the acronym stands for," he said referring to a pastel-colored home page that highlights a young girl wearing braces. "The ties to the military are not explained."
Arabian said there's no deception. "We haven't changed the name or disguised the name of the program," she said.
Some counselors support giving the ASVAB. Like "taking the SATs or ACTs for college-prep kids, this is a similar test for a trade union or an apprenticeship program," said Vincent Palumbo, a guidance counselor at Pemberton Township High School.
"Kids are afraid to take the test because they are afraid they might have to go into the military and that's not the case at all."
As for worries about recruiter calls, he says, "we warn them that the recruiters may be calling them; we say, 'If you're not interested, ignore them.' "
© 2008 The Philadelphia Inquirer