The first co-ed class of U.S. Army Ranger School is fast approaching, and many hopeful female candidates are learning just how tough it is to earn their chance to attend the prestigious but grueling course.

Only one of 17 female soldiers passed the latest pre-Ranger course at Fort Benning, Ga., as part of the Ranger Course Assessment, a historic effort that will allow the first female candidates to attend Ranger School in April.

The Ranger Training Assessment Course, or RTAC, has been designated a pre-requisite for all women who wish to attend the traditionally all-male Ranger School – a punishing, two-month ordeal designed to push combat leaders, both officers and sergeants, to their mental and physical limits. About half of all candidates fail to earn the coveted, gold and black Ranger tab.

The first RTAC course ended in late January with five out of 26 female soldiers successfully completing the course alongside 50 out of 96 males that completed the course.

The results of this latest round of RTAC were not as encouraging. A first lieutenant from Fort Carson, Col., was the only female soldier out of 17 fellow female candidates to meet the standards of the course.

Only 35 of 83 male soldiers passed the two-week course, Benning officials told reporters at a Feb. 24 round-table discussion.

"The success rate was considerably lower," said Maj. William "Shep" Woodard Jr., A Company commander at Benning's National Guard Warrior Training Center where RTAC is held.

Typically, the success rate is about 57 percent; this class had a 36-percent success rate, he said.

"For whatever reason, this was an underperforming class for men and women," he said.

The course is designed to improve the combat arms functional skills of officer and enlisted volunteers. It assesses eligible Army active duty, National Guard and foreign military soldiers on their ability to meet the challenges of Ranger School.

"It is a rigorous, tough course," said Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Benning. "The standards are not changing. They are not going to change in Ranger School."

The pilot program and assessment comes amid increasing demand in recent years to open up to women all military specialties, including infantry. Army leadership is open to the idea, but insists there will be no lowering of standards.

The effort is the result of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's January 2013 directive that all services open combat-arms roles to women that so far have been reserved for men. The services have until 2016 to make this happen.

Benning officials said in some cases, females had slightly more trouble performing 49 proper push-ups than males did. Some of the females dropped out because of medical reasons, but Benning officials did not have specific details on those cases.

All the female drops occurred in the first week of the course.

Failing candidates that come close to meeting the standards of RTAC -- whether male or female -- are invited to stay for the rest of the course for the training value alone, Benning officials said. Of the 16 who did not pass, six females stayed for the remainder of the course.

RTAC candidates that do not pass the course are usually invited back to attend at a later date, Benning officials said.

Fort Benning has taken steps to ensure that female-integration of Ranger School is conducted fairly. About 30 female commissioned and noncommissioned officers serve as observers/advisors for the effort.

Sgt. 1st Class Tiffany Easter, a military police NCO from Fort Stewart, Ga., is serving as an observer/advisor at RTAC.

Easter said she does not interact with female candidates, but instead assists Ranger instructors who have any questions retarding "gender-specific" issues.

This can be as basic as having to add bras to the packing list for the course that has always been designed for men, Benning officials said.

Barracks at these courses have been all male so they only have common bathroom and shower facilities. Male and female candidates have separate times for showering and other personal hygiene activities, Benning officials said.

Both male and female students do however sleep in the same barracks to build camaraderie, Benning officials maintain.

In some cases, instructors have to be reminded not to treat female candidates differently than male candidates, Easter said.

"A lot of the Ranger instructors have never worked with females before," Easter said. "Sometimes they can give them a little bit more assistance than they normally do -- not intentionally but just because of the fact that they are women -- so if we see anything like that, we will just kind of let the instructor know."

Two more RTAC classes are scheduled to be held prior to the Ranger Course Assessment. The next RTAC class is slated for March 6-21. Male and female students will go through the final RTAC April 3-18. Those that pass the course will go straight into Ranger School April 20, Benning officials said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com