A few days before her holiday break, South River High School junior Emily Hawse took a three-hour standardized test offered by military officials that suggests possible careers for students while helping to identify promising recruits.
Hawse, 16, of Davidsonville said she did not realize until the day of the exam that it had a military link. She said students were told not to go to the Edgewater school that morning if they didn't want to take the test, called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
"We couldn't go to class if we wanted to," said Hawse, who is undecided about her future but said it doesn't include the military.
At a time of heightened awareness of military recruitment, the aptitude test offered free by the Defense Department is drawing criticism.
Although Baltimore area school districts have made the test available for years, some Anne Arundel County students and their parents complained recently when the test was scheduled during class time at some schools, and it was unclear to some students that they could opt out.
The tests have also raised concerns in other places. In a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb, a high school junior refused to take the exam. And critics of the program say they field inquiries from all over the country. They say military recruiters use the test to identify students with skills that would be useful in the armed forces.
"You're getting hot leads as opposed to cold leads," said Oskar Castro, an associate with the Youth and Militarism Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group.
Area school and military officials defend the test as a valuable career-planning tool.
"This is actually a community service that the Department of Defense provides to help every generation of youth find where they fit in the world about them," said Chris Arendt, deputy director of accession policy at the Pentagon.
In the Baltimore area, nearly 1,400 Anne Arundel students took the test last school year, along with about 1,000 from Baltimore County, nearly 500 from Baltimore, 181 from Carroll County and 573 from Howard County. In Howard, three schools with ROTC programs offer the test, school district officials said.
Baltimore administers the test to seniors on a voluntary basis, generally at career and technology schools, and at schools with ROTC programs. Baltimore County makes it available to students who request it.
Anne Arundel County school officials say the test is not mandatory but acknowledge that the message might not have been clear to all students, given the many standardized tests they must take.
"This is one of the first times where kids get to choose whether they take a test," said Jonathan Brice, spokesman for the Anne Arundel schools. Next year, officials said, they will emphasize that the test is voluntary.
The test, which has been given to recruits since 1968, measures verbal and math skills, and knowledge in areas such as automotive maintenance and repair, electronics and mechanics. It was expanded to schools at the urging of the federal Labor and Education departments, Defense Department officials say.
Military recruitment of high school students has come under scrutiny recently with the war in Iraq continuing. Such efforts were criticized in the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11.
In addition, the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools that receive federal funding to provide military recruiters with students' names, addresses and phone numbers unless parents have opted out. Schools also must allow recruiters to have the same access to campuses that colleges have.
The military's vocational aptitude test is not part of the No Child Left Behind requirement, and the test's "career explorations" Web site says students who agree to take the test aren't making any obligations.
Nationwide, 722,450 students took the test during the past school year, according to the Defense Department. That includes more than 8,700 Maryland students from 175 schools.
The assessment has evolved several times since it was developed from tests used by branches of the military, said Arendt, a Navy captain. He said he remembers taking an early version of the test while he was in high school in the 1970s.
"It gave me, as a student, a good idea about what I could and could not look forward to in careers," he said.
Students or parents who are concerned about how information about them is used have options, he said. One is to indicate on the test that they do not want their results released to military recruiters.
"They get the results, and it's transparent to us," Arendt said.
Some students and their families aren't aware of that option, Castro said. For more than 18 years, the committee has answered questions about the test from families who encounter it in their schools.
As for casting the test as a career-planning tool, he said, "We think it's a disingenuous use of the test."
Area school officials say the tests can suggest opportunities in military and civilian jobs.
"It's a career-interest inventory," said Rhonda C. Gill, Anne Arundel's director of pupil services. "It's not done in any way, shape or form to focus kids on going into the military."
In Carroll County, all seven high schools have made the test available to students since the late 1970s, said Barbara Guthrie, the school system's guidance supervisor. Typically, a handful of students sign up for it at each school, she said, but at Winters Mill High School, 70 students took the test this year.
"It's helpful to students and parents as well, but you use it in combination with lots of other assessments in schools to help students figure out future plans and what their abilities are," Guthrie said.
Although some Anne Arundel schools administer the test more formally than schools in other counties, officials noted that students aren't required to take it. Of 250 South River juniors, 70 chose not to take the test on one of the two days it was offered last month.
While ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders were taking the PSAT countywide in October, a little more than half of the seniors at Broadneck High School took the military test, said guidance counselor Joe Kozik, as did seniors at North County and other high schools. At Broadneck, several parents called to get more information about the test.
"I think the Iraq war has certainly raised concerns on multiple levels," said Broadneck Principal Cindy Hudson.
The test serves a purpose for military recruiters. Kozik noted that recruiters are especially interested in the test results of five Broadneck students this year.
Because of the reporting requirements of No Child Left Behind, Kozik said, "whether you take this test or not ... we by law have to provide your name to the federal government."
At South River High School, some juniors left their classes to take the test two weeks ago. Others remained in class or went to school later rather than take it.
Emily Hawse said knowing the test's military connection earlier would not have kept her from taking it. "I was thinking that this might help me for college," she said.
Her mother, Monica M. Hawse, agreed that the test would be useful but added, "I think everybody - kids, parents, teachers - should know it's affiliated with the military."
Megan Lloyd, 16, a junior from Edgewater, said she learned about the test when a military recruiter spoke to her class. She was interested in anything that could help her decide what path to pursue and was not concerned about the military connection.
"The man who came into our social studies class made me feel comfortable about it," she said after classes one day.
"It's not like they're going to hound you about it," said fellow Edgewater resident Charlie Fischer, 16, who is considering the armed forces and college.
"Or at least, we hope not," Lloyd said.
Sun staff writers Athima Chansanchai and Laura Loh contributed to this article.