The Army is considering adding gender-specific standards to its new Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, after early data shows nearly half of female soldiers can't pass the test and might face being removed from service once it becomes official next year.
Service officials, including Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, testified before a House Appropriations Committee subpanel Monday that scores may end up being separated by gender to identify the 1st, 10th, 25th and 50th percentile of soldiers.
In practice, this could mean men and women still would have to meet the same standards but would not be compared to one another. Physical fitness scores are heavily considered in promotions, especially in combat-arms jobs such as infantry and cavalry.
Army officials said one possibility would be to note the soldier's percentile ranking in their record. For example, the record could show the soldier was in the top 10% of fitness ability among their gender across the Army.
Grinston, along with Lt. Gen. Jason Evans, deputy chief of staff of the Army, and Jack Surash, acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, outlined this idea in written testimony given to lawmakers ahead of the hearing. The plan was not discussed in detail.
"We expect all soldiers to meet the exact same minimum standards, regardless of age, gender, or occupational specialty," the trio said in their combined written testimony.
The news comes shortly after Military.com obtained internal Army data showing that 44% of women are failing the ACFT, compared to 7% of men. The data suggests women get better at the test as they become more familiar. Failing to pass an official fitness test can quickly lead to a soldier being booted out of the military; at this time, ACFT scores do not count against those who take them.
But simply passing the test isn't enough to help a soldier rise through the ranks. In many cases, high scores can open up opportunities for women to attend training such as the Air Assault and Ranger schools, which can greatly improve their promotion chances. Good physical fitness scores can quickly turn into career progression.
Even among those women who can pass the ACFT, most aren't maxing their scores. Only 66 female soldiers have scored a 500 or higher since October, compared to 31,978 men, according to data from April. The minimum score soldiers need to reach is 360; 600 is a perfect score.
The ACFT is still in a beta phase, and soldiers are not punished for failure. But it is supposed to become official next year, and it's unclear what the final test and scoring standards will look like, given that data strongly suggests many female soldiers will be kicked out if the test stays as is.
Measuring soldiers by tiers could be one compromise, with women compared only to other women. However, they would still have to meet the minimum standards, which could change as leaders continue to tweak the test.
Citing Military.com's reporting, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subpanel on military construction, Veterans Affairs, and related agencies blasted Army officials for what she considers "insufficient" answers on why so many women are failing the test and what the service is going to do about it.
"Why is the ACFT so difficult for women to pass?" Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., asked Grinston. "Does this new test find that nearly half of women aren't fit to serve?"
Grinston said leaders want the ACFT to test the physical actions soldiers need to perform during combat, adding that the goal isn't to disadvantage any group. Army leaders must balance how to improve fitness while not eliminating women's ability to serve, he said.
"The goal of the ACFT is to make us more fit for the task that we are performing in combat," Grinston said. "Not to say that our women haven't performed admirably in combat, because they have. But we have to do better."
He added that the Army has made efforts to better prepare soldiers for the test, such as adding athletic coaches to all brigades. However, in practice, it's unclear how available these coaches are to soldiers or how many would be needed to be effective for the whole force.
Gendered tiers would be a large departure from the Army's original plan for the test to measure fitness based on the demands of soldiers' jobs. For example, an infantryman would have higher testing standards than a cyberwarfare soldier. But some lawmakers have complained that the new CrossFit-style test's high fitness standards could shrink the military's talent pool for critical jobs that aren't physically demanding.
"Certainly, there's no woman that would want different or lower expectations of them, but the test shouldn't be structured [so that it] is unfair and makes it so lopsided that it's impossible for women to really be able to succeed. And that definitely will reflect in your recruitment and retention efforts," Wasserman Schultz said. "So it looks like you have a problem, and I hope you recognize that and give us some answers as to what you plan to do about that."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.