Joshua D. Angrist
... In 1979, only 64 percent of Army recruits were high school graduates, and 46 percent had Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) test scores between the 10th and 30th percentiles of the national youth AFQT score distribution.
Beginning in 1980, however, test scores and schooling levels of newly enlisted soldiers improved steadily. This improvement was partly attributable to the correction of incorrect ASVAB scoring procedures in the late 1970s (described more fully below) and to legislative limits on the number of low-scoring enlistments;
In a classic example of Seventies shoddiness, the Pentagon's enlistment exam was revised in January 1976, but the military botched the scoring system, which allowed in all sorts of dumbos the Pentagon had intended to keep out. This was finally fixed in October 1980, a month before the election. (The biggest chuck of data in The Bell Curve is from the renorming of the ASVAB-AFQT on the National Longitudinal Study of Youth in 1980.)
it was also due to poor civilian labor market conditions and new packages of veterans benefits that made military service relatively attractive for many young people.
By 1987, 93 percent of all new recruits had a high school diploma, and 95 percent had scores in the top 70 percent of the AFQT score distribution (Categories I–III). At the same time, the fraction of minority enlistments fell from an all time high of 35.5 percent in 1980 to 24.2 percent in 1983, rising again to 28.1 percent in 1987 (Defense Department 1988, p. II-33).
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the victory in the Gulf War, typically only about 1% of enlistees are from the 30th percentile or below of the AFQT (which is more or less of an IQ test). So, if you want to know why the military seems to function better than the public schools, well the military just doesn't deal with the bottom 100 million people in the country. (This is a little bit of an exaggeration because people who want to enlist in the military study up for the test, while it's normed on the NLSY-97 nationally representative sample who presumably didn't have any reason other than pride and cooperativeness to work hard on the test. But, still ...)
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