WASHINGTON, D.C. — In an effort to fill its ranks amid a recruiting slump, the National Guard is accepting an increasing number of new troops who don't meet the military's educational standards.

The armed forces have two main measures for judging new recruits. The services want at least 90 percent of recruits to have a high school diploma and 60 percent to score in the upper half of a standardized test in any given year.

By both measures, the Army National Guard is lagging behind, and the service is considering dropping the requirement of a high school diploma or equivalent.

The most recent data provided to Congress covering recruiting statistics for a five-month period from last October through February show that 84 percent of new recruits have a traditional high school education, while only 54 percent scored well on the standardized test.

The National Guard had similar problems last year meeting quality thresholds. The ongoing war in Iraq, in which National Guard forces play a central role, is exacerbating the service's ability to attract candidates.

In another effort to meet its recruiting goals, the National Guard announced last month that it will begin accepting older recruits.

Charles Abell, the Pentagon's principal deputy secretary of defense for personnel, acknowledged that the Army National Guard is struggling.

"While the other reserve components have been able to meet the Department of Defense quality benchmarks for new recruits," Abell told a House panel earlier this month, "the Army National Guard has historically experienced difficulty in meeting those standards."

By comparison, Abell said, other military reserve branches have exceeded quality benchmarks over the same five-month period.

For example, 92 percent of Army Reserve recruits and 91 percent of the Naval Reserve recruits have completed high school, as have 96 percent of Marine Corps Reserve recruits and 93 percent of Air Force Reserve recruits.

As for scoring in the upper half on the standardized test, known as the Armed Forces Qualification Test, 72 percent of Army Reserve recruits, 84 percent of Naval Reserve recruits, 75 percent of Marine Reserve recruits and 73 percent of Air Force recruits have done so.

The military wants candidates who score in the upper half of the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which measures math and verbal skills, "because they are easier to train and perform better on the job than their lower scoring, below average peers," Abell said.

The military prefers recruits with high school diplomas — over those with General Education Development certificates (GEDs) or other high school equivalencies — because those who complete traditional high school are most likely to successfully complete military service.

In explaining the quality slide, Abell partially blamed the decentralized nature of the Army National Guard. Where the active duty Army draws recruits from across the country, the guard recruiting pool typically is the local population where a particular unit resides. That population may not be as qualified as the national pool of candidates.

"With National Guard units located in over 3,000 communities throughout the nation, meeting the quality benchmarks has presented challenges," Abell said.

The other major reason for the increasing percentage of less-qualified recruits is that the war in Iraq and the improving economy are straining the Army National Guard's ability to attract personnel, according to Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenback, the Army's top personnel official.

The result: Hagenback said the National Guard and Army Reserve might fail to meet recruiting goals this year.

"The competition with industry, an improving economy and lower unemployment," coupled with parental worries that their children would be dispatched to Iraq, "have added to the challenges of recruiting solid candidates," Hagenback told a House panel this month.

National Guard and Reserve forces make up about 40 percent of the Army troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Guard is so pressed for new recruits that it announced last month that it will now take new recruits as old as 39 years — up from 35 years — a move that increases the recruiting pool by about 22 million Americans who may have skills currently in short supply.

In addition, the Guard is considering a measure that would eliminate its high school diploma requirement all together. Lt. Col. Michael Milord, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based National Guard Bureau, said that the service was weighing a proposal to seek new recruits with only a ninth-grade education, provided they scored well on aptitude tests and obtained a General Education Development certificate after signing up.

Thomas Hall, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, insisted that the proposal wouldn't diminish the quality of the force because less-educated troops would have to demonstrate "the mental wherewithal" before they would be accepted.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel, expressed concern that the measures were acts of desperation to keep the Guard afloat.

"When you're having to go from 35 to 39 years, and when you're considering waiving the high school educational requirement, that's a good sign to me that we're really having to think outside the box to keep the force from bleeding any further," he said.