Scores for the Army’s new fitness test may not end up ‘gender-neutral’ after all
“We had this big thing of inclusion but this is one of the biggest eye sores that goes against inclusion."
Three years after unveiling its new fitness test as gender-neutral, the Army is considering a change to the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) that would score soldiers on a service-wide percentile separated by gender, Task & Purpose has learned.
“We had this big thing of inclusion but this is one of the biggest eyesores that goes against inclusion,” an Army official said of the ACFT on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “They didn’t think about it. It was mostly men that ran it and it’s mostly men who are going to take it, and it’s mostly men who are just refusing to take the L.”
Briefing slides obtained by Task & Purpose marked as ‘pre-decisional’ from the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command for senior Army leaders show changes under consideration for the ACFT. Army officials have hailed the test — which consists of six events including a two-mile run, maximum deadlift, hand-release pushups, and a leg tuck — as crucial to soldier development, though lawmakers and advocacy groups have criticized it as potentially harmful to soldiers’ careers and not properly designed.
The slides describe “ACFT 3.0” and suggest permanently adding the option for soldiers to do a two-minute plank instead of the leg tuck — an option made temporarily available to soldiers last summer — removing the military occupational specialty (MOS)-specific requirements and eliminating competition between genders and scoring men and women in percentiles of their gender. Another proposal includes removing numerical fitness test scores from soldiers’ files for promotion boards in favor of color codes symbolizing their percentile in an effort to remove bias.
Some of the suggestions were found in slides posted on Reddit in January, but additional slides obtained by Task & Purpose included some of the Army’s thinking behind the changes — specifically, the Army’s acknowledgment of Congressional hurdles over the test’s implementation. Congress ordered the Army to stop administering the ACFT until an independent study could be conducted on its impact on soldiers in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which became law on Jan. 1 after Congress overrode President Donald Trump’s veto.
“We know there is a physiological difference between men and women,” reads one slide. “The Army has to account for this and remove the competition between genders or Congress will never allow ACFT implementation. The goal of the ACFT is to reward the most physically fit, this accomplishes that accounting for biological differences.”
Lt. Col. Gabe Ramirez, an Army spokesman, declined to answer specific questions about the documents, saying they “are pre-decisional.” At this point, it’s unclear if the changes suggested in the slides have been accepted, declined, or are still under review.
“We are currently in the assessment phase as we collect ACFT scores from soldiers across the Army,” Ramirez said. “We are taking a deliberate approach to gather information from the force and conduct an independent review in accordance with the NDAA so that we can revise the ACFT to ensure it’s fair for all soldiers and is an accurate predictor of fitness required for combat.”
The process of ACFT implementation has not been a smooth road for the Army, to say the least.
Early on, in Sept. 2019, preliminary scores made public of 11 battalions showed a stark performance divide between men and women, sparking criticism from soldiers and advocacy groups. Maj. Gen. Lonnie Hibbard, the commander of the Center for Initial Military Training, said in Nov. 2019 that the Army would likely make adjustments to the test over the next three to five years before it was right. He emphasized that success was dependent on learning how to train for the test.
A request from Task & Purpose to interview Hibbard for this article was denied due to the pre-decisional nature of the slides.
While the ACFT was expected to become the test of record on Oct. 1, 2020, the service made the decision in March last year to delay the official start date due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). In June, service leaders said soldiers would be taking the ACFT as of Oct. 1, but that scores wouldn’t officially count for or against them until much later.
Then in October, two senators publicly criticized the test’s implementation as “premature.”
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a letter to the heads of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees that the ACFT is “a work in progress,” but that they have “considerable concerns regarding the negative impact it may already be having on so many careers.” They also criticized the Army for “[pouring] money and resources into administering and preparing for the flawed test instead of questioning the validity of the test,” and focused specifically on the cost of the equipment required for soldiers to take the test.
“The Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) required a $3 stopwatch,” the senators’ letter said. “The ACFT requires approximately $3,000 worth of equipment to put one individual through the test.”
A month later the Service Women’s Action Network, a non-partisan advocacy group for servicewomen and women veterans, called for more study of the ACFT in a letter to Congress.
“We are concerned that the considerable time and effort each soldier will have to commit to reaching and maintaining the high levels of strength the ACFT demands — especially over a career that spans 20 or 30 years — will reduce [the] emphasis on other attributes important in combat such as leadership, trust, and teamwork,” SWAN said.
One of the slides obtained by Task & Purpose says ‘ACFT 3.0′ is meant to answer soldiers’ questions of “how will the ACFT be used to impact my career … and address the congressional and action groups concerns over gender differences and the pass rate of the leg tuck.”
Among the changes the Army is considering is removing the MOS-specific gold/grey/black standards, which identified how severe the physical requirements were for that job. The gold standard, for example, is designated as “moderate MOS physical demands” and is the standard soldiers have to meet upon graduating from basic combat training. The three categories determined passing scores, the Army said in 2019, “regardless of age or gender.”
The new scoring system detailed in the slides would put soldiers into percentiles tiered by color instead of the points they receive on the test — platinum, gold, silver, bronze, and green. All soldiers will take the same test events, but their scores would then be ranked within their gender, instead of putting men and women in the same category. The score associated with the percentile would be “determined based on Army performance by gender.”
Promotion points would be assigned based on what color tier they fall into — 100% for platinum, 90% for gold, 80% for silver, etc. The colors, not the numerical points, would be used on awards and evaluations, the slides say, “a method our allies use and it works with masking gender and nationality from evals during promotion/selection boards.”
“Banding the score in tiers allows for variations in height, weight, test conditions, slope, surface, etc.,” the slide explains. “Tiering is about your physical fitness level not the precise score.”
Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and the director of government affairs for SWAN, pointed Task & Purpose to a 2018 study published by the RAND Corporation, saying the study lays out what “valid” test standards look like — but said the Army “skipped that whole part of it” when they were designing the ACFT. The study says valid test scores allow people to predict whether someone will be successful in meeting the physical requirements of their job.
“If you look at the RAND study, it says when you’re coming up with gender-neutral standards, if there are men or women for instance — or by age, or whatever groups of people who are currently doing the job satisfactorily — who can’t pass the standards, who can’t meet the standards, then there’s something wrong with the standards,” she said.
Manning added that removing competition between genders gets at “a piece” of what the Army needs to fix with the ACFT, but the “occupation of the people you’re competing with matters.”
“I would expect a man or woman who’s in a ground forces MOS to have a higher score because they’re … out there using their bodies day in and day out in a way that the anesthesiologist or the Catholic chaplain or the communications clerk just isn’t,” she said.
As for the leg tuck, the suggested changes say that soldiers would declare at the beginning of the test which exercise they plan to do (the plank or the leg tuck), something the slide says was taken “from the Marines’ playbook.”
That’s a positive change and one the Army should make permanent, according to Manning. One female Army officer agreed the change could alleviate concerns for a lot of women — specifically those who are postpartum or who had C-sections — though the plank can come with its own challenges, specifically related to a grader’s subjective opinion on whether or not a soldier’s back is flat enough to qualify.
“So particularly a lot of more curvaceous women are feeling like they’re kind of getting profiled,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. “And it’s a natural thing with age … that happens to everyone. So a lot of older people are like, ‘That’s as straight as it goes, buddy!’”
In the same vein, the officer said she can see how the test is beneficial for young soldiers in the Army or recruits just joining up — but older soldiers in the service face different challenges, including injuries from past deployments over the years.
“You look at the numbers and it’s like, well, we are the people who deployed five times,” she said. “So even training for this ACFT has caused a lot of problems. Every time I go to the physical therapy clinic at the Pentagon it’s just people who are like, ‘I was fine until I started trying to deadlift 300 pounds.’ Like the time to start powerlifting in your career is maybe not when you’re 40 or 50.”
Another common concern is that the test is inaccessible; the officer said soldiers “don’t feel supported in this” because “most of us can’t even get access to the equipment to train on.” The Army official who spoke with Task & Purpose echoed that concern.
“When I see a specialist or a single mom trying to buy equipment because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their career — I have a problem with that,” the official said.
Ultimately, Manning said the Army needs to start over and re-evaluate how the test is designed.
“Why don’t they just go start from the beginning and validate things properly? I don’t know,” Manning said. “But they are sincere, they’ve been very responsive to congressional and to soldier complaints. They’ve listened to people like SWAN, they’ve listened to us and they’ve heard us, and we do appreciate that a lot. But you know, this thing was spoiled before it launched and there’s nothing any of this is going to do to fix that until they go take the spoiled eggs out of it.”
Featured photo: Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kristan Johnson, from U.S. Army Central Forward, based in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, completes hand release pushups during an Army Combat Fitness Test, Jan. 25, 2021. (U.S Army/Sgt. Jermaine Jackson)