The Army is ditching multiple choice tests and adding grade-point averages and class rankings to its education courses, and the changes will hit your classroom sooner than you think.

Starting with the Sergeants Major Academy, the Army is pushing forward with its work to overhaul its professional military education. The goal is to make classes tougher and more performance-based at every level of noncommissioned officer education.

Aspiring sergeants major in the current Sergeants Major Course, which kicked off in August, will have to pass written exams and work for a GPA if they want to graduate next summer.

Changes to the other NCO education courses, including the Basic Leader Course, Advanced Leader Course and Senior Leader Course, and the dreaded Structured Self-Development, are expected next year. Some pilot courses could take place as soon as spring or early summer.

"When you think about how we describe the future, [as] unknown, unknowable and constantly changing, we have to teach these noncommissioned officers how to be adaptive, how to critically think, how to process information quickly," said Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport, the senior enlisted soldier for Training and Doctrine Command. "Teaching them to memorize stuff and not seeing how they understand what they’re learning is probably not the way to do it. NCOs don’t like being told what to think. They like for it to be explained and they figure it out on their own."

The Army is focused on courses that have "rigor and relevance," Davenport said.

"We’re not training, we’re educating," he said. "We want this stuff to stick with them."

The changes underway in NCO education mark a key shift in the way the Army educates and prepares its soldiers for that next higher level of responsibility, and it is linked with a new strategy called STEP, or "select, train, educate and promote."

Under STEP, soldiers must have the right level of education before they can be promoted to the next rank. It went 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.

In addition to this renewed emphasis on education, incorporating grade-point averages and class rankings will not only better evaluate soldiers' performance, they also will make it easier for military education to translate into civilian college credits.

In its current form, the Army Form 1059, the Service School Academic Evaluation Report, consists of a series of block checks to determine if a student met or exceeded the standards required for any particular course. Soon, the 1059 will include a soldier's GPA and class ranking, providing a clearer picture of a soldier's academic performance and achievements, officials said.

The newly developed Master Leader Course, which in fiscal year 2018 will be required for promotion to E-8, was the first to fully embrace written or short essay exams and this new way of testing.

Class 67, the current class at the Sergeants Major Course, is the first existing course to make the switch to all written exams. It also will be the first to incorporate grade-point averages and class rankings.

But they won’t be the only ones for very long.

"We’re piloting [the changes] this year in the Sergeants Major Course, and, hopefully, as we redesign the other courses, we’ll figure out if it’s feasible at every level," said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese, commandant of the Sergeants Major Academy.

The Army is overhauling its NCO education courses, making them tougher and more relevant.
Photo Credit: Army

Work is already underway to redesign the Basic Leader Course, formerly known as the Warrior Leader Course, Defreese said. This course is for soldiers who want to be promoted to sergeant. The goal is to start running pilots of the newly designed course  sometime in the spring or early summer, he said.

The Sergeants Major Academy also is developing common core for the Advanced Leader Course, which is a requirement for promotion to staff sergeant, and Senior Leader Course, which is required for promotion to sergeant first class, he said. Pilots for those courses also are expected to take place in the spring or summer, Defreese said.

"We’re doing that in every level NCO course that we are either designing or redesigning here," Defreese said. "We’re putting that same kind of rigor and making it academically challenging."

The intent is "just to make sure every NCO at every level is getting the same leadership competencies taught to them," he said.

As Class 67 gets underway, students will be assessed in a variety of areas, both academic and military.

For example, they will be evaluated on their oral presentations, writing skills, and contributions to the classroom and projects. But they also will be evaluated on their scores on the Army Physical Fitness Test.

"It’s the whole-soldier concept," Defreese said. "We want them to do well in their course work, but we want them to be everything from physically fit to demonstrated abilities from writing to leadership to participation."

The focus on NCOs' ability to write clearly and effectively is not new. On Oct. 1, all soldiers and NCOs preparing to attend a professional military education course, including at the Sergeants Major Academy, will be required to take an English comprehension and writing assessment.

A pilot underway 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.

"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," Liston Bailey, chief of learning initiatives and innovations for Training and Doctrine Command's Institute of NCO Professional Development, told Army Times earlier this year.

Another key change for students at the Sergeants Major Course is they will no longer be allowed to retake a test.

"If they do happen to take a test and score below the minimum GPA, they’ll be allowed to do some remedial assessments to get it back up to the minimum, but there’ll be no retests," Defreese said.

Retests did not ensure students were truly learning and understanding the material, he said.

"With remedial assessments, we’re pinpointing" the areas where the student needs extra help, said Command Sgt. Maj. Harold Reynolds, director of the Sergeants Major Course.

"We have a vested interest that at every level course we’re responsible for here, that we’re producing the best NCO," Defreese said. "We want them to retain the knowledge. That’s why we went to writing and short essay tests. If you have to write something out, you probably know the material."

To prepare for Class 67, the Sergeants Major Academy tested some of the changes with Class 66 before them. About half of that class’ exams were written instead of multiple choice.

"Even though the tests were more challenging, we had fewer failures on written tests than multiple choice tests," Defreese said.

Class 66 had zero dismissals for academic reasons, while the class before it, Class 65, had eight, he said.

"Part of it is because we’re targeting their deficiency instead of doing random retests," Defreese said.  "Our goal here isn’t to fail anybody. The Army’s invested a lot of money by the time somebody gets here to get them ready to be a sergeant major. We owe it to our Army and our NCO corps to try to get them through the school. We’re not letting anybody slip by, but we do have obligations to turn out the best sergeant major we can turn out."

Members of Class 66 wait for their names to be called during graduation from the Sergeants Major Course.

Photo Credit: Army

Sgt. Maj. Tyrone Surmons and Sgt. Maj. David Sweitzer are graduates of Class 66. The men graduated June 17 and are working at the Sergeants Major Academy while awaiting their follow-on orders.

Sweitzer said he enjoyed the written exams.

"It gave me more time to think about it instead of just looking at a boxed answer and trying to pick one," he said. "I retained a lot more from the essays. Doing just the multiple choice, I can easily dump that information and not retain it, but when I sat down and wrote it out, I retained it better."

Surmons agreed.

"The written assignments challenged us students to think outside the box," he said. "It allows us to look at the Army and present an argument on the way forward."

Class 66 also benefited from classroom discussions with students from all specialties and backgrounds, Sweitzer said.

"Being able to talk to everybody else outside our career field really brought a new understanding to things and sharing experiences on the lessons we were being taught," he said.

Surmons said he believes this new way to teaching and testing soldiers will produce better-prepared NCOs.

"I think it’s going to enhance our junior leaders," he said. "Not every answer is going to be in the books."

As for the 575 students in Class 67, they are just about a month into the course. Graduation day is June 22, 2017.

The course so far has "been very challenging, just trying to balance everything that’s going on," said Master Sgt. Keela Smith, a student who also is the class president. "But I think it’s a great course, and I think the way the Army is going is going to be very good for a lot of people. There’s more focus on writing and analysis, education versus training."

Master Sgt. Ronald Flick, a fellow student, agreed.

"What it helps us do is better understand what information they’re trying to teach us here," he said. "We’re not educating ourselves for an exam. We’re educating ourselves to learn information."

Flick said he’s already enjoying being in class discussions with NCOs from different career fields.

"As NCOs prepare to take the step into this part of their career, they need to be prepared," he said. "This is definitely going to be the direction the Army’s going, and hearing some of the way forward with some of the [other levels of NCO education], our soldiers are going to continue to be challenged."

The Army will continue to work on improving NCO education, Davenport said.

"At each level, we’re working on something," he said.

And it also continues to seek feedback from soldiers, including through Davenport’s blogand virtual town hall meetings.

The next one is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Nov. 3, Davenport said. This one will focus on talent management and the many programs available for soldiers, he said.

"Hopefully soldiers will know that we’re listening," Davenport said.

Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.

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