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Mandatory writing test for NCOs to launch Oct. 1

Beginning Oct. 1, all soldiers and noncommissioned officers preparing to attend an NCO professional military education course will be required to take an English comprehension and writing assessment.

The move is part of the Army's ongoing effort to sharpen its education courses and develop better leaders.

A pilot underway right now with Basic Leader Course students, most of whom are specialists seeking promotion to sergeant, showed that about 75 percent of those assessed need additional help or coaching. More than 12,000 BLC students have taken the assessment.

"What we've found was that they have writing skills, but they could improve to a level that would be comparable to a first-year college student," said Liston Bailey, chief of learning initiatives and innovations for Training and Doctrine Command's Institute of NCO Professional Development. "A lot of the young men and women come in, and their writing skills are not polished. They don't necessarily have the skills to write about and defend their ideas, or how to support an argument, let's say."

The goal isn't to make soldiers more like college students. Instead, it's to gradually improve their writing abilities, Bailey said.

"Communication is a most vital aspect of leadership, and as an NCO matures, they need to be able to speak and write with authority, to counsel subordinates in writing, and to analyze and describe how to fix problems," Bailey said.

The Army's new NCO Evaluation Report also contains a narrative portion, requiring senior NCOs to have solid writing abilities so they can properly evaluate their subordinates, he said.

"That's why we need good writing competencies and skills across the NCO cohort," Bailey said.

For now, only soldiers attending the Basic Leader Course, formerly known as the Warrior Leader Course, are being required to take the writing assessment. Bailey anticipates more than 18,000 students will have taken the assessment by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Beginning Oct. 1, all NCO academies, including the Sergeants Major Academy, will start offering the assessment. TRADOC last week sent a tasking to NCO academies across the Army, calling on them to start preparing to administer the assessment. About 97,000 soldiers attend NCO professional military education courses each year, Bailey said.

"It will be mandatory that the schools participate in this initiative," Bailey said. "If a school hosts NCO professional military education, then it's something they must do."

The Army has learned enough from its ongoing Basic Leader Course pilot to decide to expand the assessment to all levels of NCO education, he said.

"We think now's the time to expand it to all levels of NCO education," Bailey said, adding that at 69 cents per assessment, the program is not expensive.

Taking the assessment will help NCOs become more aware of their writing abilities, he said.

"It promotes self-awareness and understanding of their level of communication skills as far as English composition, writing and the expression of ideas."

The English comprehension and writing assessment began in 2015 with a 500-soldier pilot. The pilot, which also involved students attending the Basic Leader Course, ran last spring at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fort Hood, Texas, Camp Williams, Utah, and Parks Reserve Forces Training Area, California.

On the first day of class, students were asked to write an essay. In that case, soldiers were given about 45 minutes to write an essay about peer pressure.

The pilot was then expanded to the current test, which targets all Basic Leader Course students.

Of the roughly 75 percent of soldiers who were found to need additional help or coaching, most of the shortfalls had to do with grammar, spelling and punctuation, Bailey said. Many also struggled with organization.

"That's what we really want to get after," he said. "Can you organize your thoughts?"

Forms for the new NCO evaluation system are now available.

Photo Credit: Staff

The goal is for junior NCOs to be able to write at the first-year college level. Mid-grade NCOs' writing should be comparable to second- or third-year college students, while senior NCOs should be writing at a post-baccalaureate level, said Bailey, who holds a doctorate and graduate degrees in the fields of education, organizational development and public administration.

The assessment uses the Educational Testing Service's Criterion Online Writing Evaluation Service, an established, off-the-shelf program that automatically scores essays on a scale of one to six. The software also gives an overall assessment of the soldier's writing based on the complexity of the writing, grammar, spelling, syntax, organization and other facets.

Once the assessment goes to all the NCO academies, the Army is going to ask the individual schools to determine how and when to administer the test, Bailey said.

"The commandants will make their own logistical arrangements to make this all come to fruition," he said. "The main goal is the student brings their results with them to school, and it becomes a discussion point or discussion topic in a lesson or a counseling with an instructor."

The Army also is ensuring writing is part of every level of NCO education, Bailey said.

"In the future, when an NCO goes to school, it doesn't matter at what level, they'll be expected to produce writing products," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's an E-5 or an E-9."

Soldiers' writing scores also will be uploaded to the Army Career Tracker, a career management site that helps enlisted soldiers, officers and Army civilians map out their careers based on their specialties. This will enable soldiers' supervisors to see their scores and create a record of a soldier's scores throughout his career.

"That way we can aggregate the data, track the progress of the initiative over time and see if it's yielding the results we want for the Army and NCO corps," Bailey said.

The Army also is uploading free resources on the Army Learning Management System so soldiers can brush up on grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting and other aspects of writing, Bailey said.

"It's on the NCO to self-develop, but we'll also have some of this embedded in some of the writing support courses and products embedded in the Structured Self-Development [courses]," he said.

Initial feedback from soldiers has been a mix of positive feedback and anxiety, Bailey said.

"There's a little bit of apprehension, [including] 'Is this going to be pass or fail?' 'Am I going to suffer career-wise?'" he said. "The answer I give most of the time is this is about development and self-awareness and creating opportunities for people to improve. It's not about a high-stakes writing test as much as developing competencies and confidence as far as their ability to brief and write with clarity and precision."

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