New mandatory PME requirements kick in this year — as early as Jan. 1 for some — as the Army makes some sweeping changes to the way it educates soldiers.

Under a new strategy called STEP, or "select, train, educate and promote," soldiers must have the right level of education before they can be promoted to the next rank.

STEP goes into effect Jan. 1 for soldiers seeking promotion to sergeant and staff sergeant. It becomes mandatory for promotion to sergeant first class later in 2016 and for promotion to master sergeant in 2017.

The new promotion requirements expand on the select, train, educate and promote procedures already used for advancements to sergeant major.

The implementation of STEP comes on the heels of an effort by Training and Doctrine Command to push a backlog of nearly 14,000 soldiers through the schools they need to be considered for promotion.

This included scheduling everyone in the backlog who needed the Advanced Leader Course and Senior Leader Course against a school date, and tightening the rules for requesting a deferment to attend school.

TRADOC also is studying various options, such as increasing the frequency of certain schools for low-density specialties, to make sure soldiers aren't disadvantaged by the new promotion requirements.

Along with STEP, the Army also is overhauling its professional military education by making classes tougher and more performance-based. Some of the new initiatives include grading soldiers' work and assigning a grade-point average, plus ranking soldiers by class.

The Army also is looking to include a writing assessment before every PME course. The Army ran an initial pilot last summer, and in 2016 will run a second assessment that will include all soldiers attending the Basic Leader Course (formerly known as the Warrior Leader Course). About 45,000 soldiers in all will be required to write an essay on the first day of the course. Their writing will be scored based on the complexity of the writing, grammar, spelling and other facets, officials said.

The new Master Leader Course is another major PME initiative in 2016. This course will be for sergeants first class preparing for promotion to master sergeant.

The Army ran a pilot in October at the NCO Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. There are plans for three validation courses in 2016, one on a Forces Command installation, one at a National Guard post, and one at an Army Reserve Training Institution.

The goal is to have the Master Leader Course up and running by fiscal 2018, making it a requirement for promotion to E-8 for soldiers selected by the fiscal year 2017 selection board.