More Evidence Needed to Support Performance Goals of Current Army Combat Fitness Test; Women, Other Groups Pass the Gender-Neutral Test at Lower Rates
March 23, 2022
As the U.S. Army rolls out its Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), more evidence is needed to prove that all six test events adequately predict performance on combat tasks or reduce injury risks and that combat task performance is a necessary metric for all Army jobs, according to a new report from the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
These concerns are noteworthy even as women and other groups including U.S. Army Reserve and Army National Guard troops pass the ACFT at significantly lower rates.
RAND was asked to help the Army ensure a successful full-scale implementation of the ACFT. Its research uncovered gaps in the evidence base that need to be addressed for the test to meet the Army's fitness goals. The leg tuck and plank, for example, are not well-supported for use in predicting performance on combat tasks. The leg tuck's lack of support is especially problematic given that many women are unable to complete a single repetition, researchers found.
“Because this test may ultimately be used for personnel actions, it is especially important that all of the test's events and minimum standards are validated for all genders, components, and occupational specialties,” said Chaitra Hardison, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and lead author of the report.
The report, which analyzes ACFT scores through last summer, questions the Army's policy that all soldiers need to be held to the same fitness standards, noting that greater consideration should be given to which soldiers should be held to combat standards versus general fitness or health standards. Emphasizing physical skills that aren't necessary for all occupations could negatively affect recruiting for some specialties such as cyber or medical personnel that are already facing challenges from the private sector.
During the test phase, passing rates ranged from 41% to 52% for enlisted women, versus 83% to 92% for men, depending upon component. Pass rates among officers were higher, ranging from 49% to 72% for women, versus 86% to 96% for men. Pass rates are also lower for members of the U.S. Army Reserve, the Army National Guard, and soldiers over 45 years old. Scores also vary across military occupational specialties and between officers and enlisted personnel.
While the pass rate discrepancies alone do not mean the test is flawed, the authors suggest that additional data is needed to further validate findings by gender and to establish justifiable minimum standards on events. The Army needs to continually examine and assess personnel outcomes associated with current minimum scores and monitor organizational progress toward achieving the aims of the test.
The report finds that ACFT pass rates have improved in certain training settings and recommends providing access to coaching, equipment, and training tailored to specific ACFT events and soldiers' individual needs to help increase pass rates across the force.
The Army should also consider ways to mitigate impacts of high failure rates on its workforce. For example, the Army could change how the ACFT is scored—such as establishing different standards based on gender, age, or job-specific demands—or reconsider the minimum passing scores. The Army could also establish policies that address specific circumstances or exceptional cases like under the old Army Physical Fitness Test. In addition, the Army could consider phasing in implementation to allow time for performance improvements on specific events.
The authors recommend the creation of a formal governance structure—cochaired by the Undersecretary of the Army and the Sergeant Major of the Army—to oversee implementation of the ACFT and monitor its progress over time.
“The Army has done a great deal of research and work in support of the ACFT, but this is the most substantial and significant overhaul of its fitness training program in 40 years and the need for a dedicated management structure of sufficient stature to institutionalize, guide, monitor, and support the ACFT cannot be overstated,” Hardison said.
This report, Independent Review of the Army Combat Fitness Test, stems from the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed the Army to commission an independent assessment of the ACFT. It was conducted within the Personnel, Training, and Health Program of the RAND Corporation's Arroyo Center, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Army.