Students line up to speak with Chief Christopher Stevens, a Navy counselor, during Career Day at Yokota Air Base, Japan, in May 2022.

Students line up to speak with Chief Christopher Stevens, a Navy counselor, during Career Day at Yokota Air Base, Japan, in May 2022. (Juan King/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Navy’s second-highest civilian leader on Wednesday defended the service’s recent decision to accept lower scores on its entrance exam as lawmakers worried the move would hurt Navy readiness.

Erik Raven, the undersecretary of the Navy, explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee that widening the pool of potential sailors to those who score within the 10th and 30th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test would help the service address serious recruiting challenges. But he emphasized that standards for becoming a machinist mate, fire controlman or other Navy occupation would remain the same.

“We’re trying to increase the pool, but the standards for performing the job are what is key and what we need to perform our mission, and we have not changed that,” Raven said.

The Navy announced the new guidelines in December after struggling, like the Army and Air Force, to meet its recruitment goals. The loosened requirements will allow the service to accept up to 20% of prospective sailors who receive a category 4 score, the second-lowest score level, on an entrance test that measures cognitive ability. The military has traditionally accepted very low numbers of category 4 scorers, and candidates with category 5 scores are ineligible to serve.

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the committee, said he was concerned the lowering of minimum test scores could lead to a repeat of the quality challenges that the U.S. military faced in the past.

About half of the Army’s recruits at the beginning of the 1980s had finished high school and half had scored in the lowest third on the armed forces aptitude test, according to a 1986 article in The Atlantic magazine. The Army’s attempts to fix its recruiting shortfalls in the early 2000s also led to an uptick in accepting low scorers, according to news reports.

“There are no easy solutions to this problem, but we know what does not work. Lowering recruitment standards today leads to morale, discipline and readiness problems tomorrow,” Wicker said. “The Navy seems intent on reducing standards to increase recruiting.”

The service barely met its active-duty enlistment goals last year, overshooting its target of 33,400 new service members by just 42 people. Navy officials project an even tougher recruiting landscape this year and have taken other steps to widen the service’s candidate pool, including lifting the maximum enlistment age from 39 to 41.

Raven said Wednesday that the Navy this year will train potential recruits to meet academic and physical entry requirements through a new Future Sailor preparatory course. The course is modeled on the Army’s Future Soldier training program, which was able to graduate about 3,700 potential candidates for the service since launching last year.

Only about 23% of Americans ages 17 to 24 meet the academic, fitness and other standards required for military service — a drop of 6% from a decade ago, according to Gabriel Camarillo, the undersecretary of the Army.

The Army's top general, Gen. James McConville, warned in January that lowering requirements to boost recruitment numbers could be dangerous and lead to "unimaginable things."

The Navy plans to try out the lower entrance exam requirements and the prep course through the end of the fiscal year in October and then evaluate both for effectiveness.

The service is also turning its attention to retention to meet its end-strength goals for 2023. Last month, the Navy announced it would allow commanders to remove failed fitness tests from the records of active-duty and Reserve sailors so they can reenlist or receive a promotion.

Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., questioned the wisdom of that new policy as well as the Navy's recent recruitment changes.

“I understand we need to improve recruiting and retention numbers," he said. "But we can’t skimp on quality."

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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