IN 1997 THE ARMY inaugurated a new officer evaluation system and a redesigned Officer Evaluation Report (OER), Department of the Army Form 67-9. The popular previous version had been compromised by an insidious inflation during the 19 years of its existence, as more and more officers received above-average ratings.1 Instead of reserving such ratings for the exceptional few, senior raters awarded top-block evaluations to nearly all officers as a matter of course. The records of average versus superior performers became increasingly hard to distinguish from each other, complicating the task of identifying officers best qualified for advancement.
The Army implemented the new OER to fix this. The main feature of the new document was a major curtailment of senior-rater discretion. Instead of the complete freedom that the previous system granted to senior raters, the new system limited the number of top-block ratings to 49 percent or fewer of the total.2 Excess top block ratings (more than 49 percent) appear in the rated officer's records as "center of mass" (COM). The intent was to create a clear distinction among officers that was not present under the previous, inflated report.
Nearly a decade later, however, inflation-the bane of the old OER-has given way to a new pitfall, distortion. The distortion emanates from two sources. The first is the failure of many senior raters to base their evaluations on a well-developed senior-rater philosophy. This produces a reactive approach to OERs in which the main factor is neither performance nor potential, but the senior-rater's profile at the time he or she renders the report. Above Center of Mass (ACOM) reports are awarded almost on a first-come, first-served basis, depending on how close to the 49 percent cap the senior rater is.
The second distorting factor is a pervasive sense of entitlement. Senior raters often implicitly assume that every officer is entitled to his or her "fair share" of top block reports and to an equal shot at promotion. Senior raters frequently pass over those most qualified for ACOM reports in order to take care of less qualified officers facing impending selection boards.
Clearly, senior raters consider performance and potential when rendering ratings, but many are reluctant to make the tough call that decides which officers stand out from the rest. This is sometimes less pronounced in mature profiles large enough to accommodate ACOM reports for both those who deserve them and for those who merely need them. In the final analysis, however, senior raters seem strongly inclined to choose against the best qualified officers in favor of others based on a perceived need instead of merit. In short, senior raters frequently render reports on the basis of expedience.
The 1997 OER system may be more effective than its predecessor at identifying the best qualified officers, but distortion distracts from its effectiveness. This effectiveness can be bolstered, however, by changing senior-rater practices and by further reforming the OER system.
Senior raters can accomplish the first change within the framework of the system as it exists now. Every senior rater must adopt a rating philosophy that assumes that evaluation reports exist not to give every officer an equal chance at advancement, but to give the best qualified officers the greatest chance of advancement. This is a critical distinction. Individual officers are not entitled to an equal chance at promotion. Rather, they are entitled to a fair and equitable review of their qualifications as reflected in fair and accurate OERs, and to be promoted if they are found to be best qualified. A model senior-rater philosophy is depicted in the matrix below.
Under this rating method, the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel would be terminal grades at which officers might reasonably expect to culminate their careers. The ranks of second lieutenant through major would be developmental grades at which officers would not be expected to culminate their careers; for these officers, potential for successful service at higher grades would be a requirement for retention in the force. …