Congress’ new defense bill will require Army Secretary Christine Wormuth to rehaul the army fitness test one more to impose gender-neutral standards, overturning months of work to develop a new evaluation after women consistently underperformed on the test relative to their male counterparts.
Sec. 528 of the compromise defense bill released Tuesday, which was largely seen as a win for Republicans, directs the Army to establish “gender-neutral physical readiness standards that ensure soldiers can perform the duties of their respective military occupational specialties.”
The requirement throws another hurdle into the Army’s 12-year battle to reinvent the way it measures physical readiness, one that was further upended after Wormuth directed the service to introduce a gender-specific grading scale in March 2022, according to Military.com.
The Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) became official for active duty soldiers in October after a years-long real-time development phase, according to Military.com. It is set to become the standard for reserve and National Guard members in April.
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In 2021, Gen. James McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, told Congress he hoped the test would grade male and female enlisted and officers on the same scale. However, Democratic lawmakers delayed the test’s implementation to commission a study on its potential consequences for recruiting and retention, particularly for female soldiers, in the 2021 NDAA.
However, early data compiled in 2021, after the scoring system was adjusted for gender, showed that women continued to fail the test at much higher rates than their male counterparts, according to Army Forces Command data shared with Military.com.
Women exhibited a 44% fail rate compared to men at 7%, with women struggling especially in the leg tuck and two-mile run events.
“I have concerns on the implications of the test for our ability to continue to retain women,” Wormuth said at her 2021 confirmation hearing.
After that, Army planners re-introduced gender-specific scoring standards, according to Military.com.
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The Army also hoped for job-specific scoring, arguing that individuals with desk jobs or roles less physically strenuous should not be required to meet the same standards as those who will see front-line combat, according to Military.com. The congressional amendment appears to leave the door open to adjusting scoring minimums according to job requirements.
Congress and Army leaders widely agreed the prior evaluation, the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), needed overhauling to mitigate injury and make the test more specific to combat requirements, according to Military.com. While the APFT scored based on only three events — push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run — the ACFT includes six, more complicated events including a deadlift, the plank, hand-release push-ups and the two-mile run.