Sunday, March 22, 2009

Amateur Radio Licensing Exams

The ham radio sector of the blogosphere is all agog over the FCC's recent decision to deny KI4NGN's petition to expand the minimum question pool size from 10 times the number of questions on each exam, to 50 times. As best as I can figure, the argument for expanding the pool is to make it impossible for candidates to memorize the entire question pool, enabling them to pass the exam without actually learning anything. The FCC denied the petition because the petitioner did not provide evidence that the current practice was, in fact, leading to there being a large number of operators who did not possess the necessary skills to operate their stations correctly.

First, I'm one of those people who at least partially memorized the question pools, with enough success that I managed to pass all three elements at one go. I also publish study decks (derived directly from the NCVEC published pools) that, used in conjunction with readily available software, will assist others in using this technique to prepare for the exams, if they so choose. I don't have a problem with people using this approach; I want to see as many interested people in ham radio as possible. (Unlike some people. More on this later.)

Second, many of the commentators state that Mr. Mancuso's proposal would make it much harder for candidates to pass. That is something of a reach. While it would make memorizing the pools much harder (the Technician and General pools would be forced to increase to at least 1750 questions from their current 392 and 486, respectively, and the Extra pool to at least 2500 questions from its current 738), it would be entirely up to the NCVEC to decide whether the additional questions would actually cover additional material, or merely involve more permutations of the same material requiring no additional study.

Either way, however, it would have a dramatic impact on the NCVEC. The NCVEC, as the body currently charged with producing and maintaining the question pools, is, as far as I know, organized entirely on a voluntary basis. Accepting Mr. Mancuso's petition would have forced the NCVEC to come up with four to five times as many questions on each of the three pools; this would have strained the capabilities of what is presently an all-volunteer organization and would likely have required the NCVEC to hire staff, which would force them to solicit contributions from, or even charge dues to, their member organizations, which would in turn force them to increase testing fees. There are enough people complaining about the ARRL/VEC charging $15 per session; just imagine how loudly they'd screech if that went up to $30. And, of course, any increase in fees will incrementally exclude some candidates.

More importantly, however, is that Mr. Mancuso's petition underlies a misunderstanding of the purpose of the licensing examinations. The exams do not, by any reasonable standard, test candidates on whether they have the skills they need to successfully operate an amateur radio station. Some of the questions are, in fact, somewhat relevant, but a passing grade on the current exams, whether obtained "honestly" through actually learning the material, or merely by memorizing the pool, does not in any way insure that the licensee has any clue how to successfully operate their station. There is no practical test of operating procedures anywhere in the licensing process.

And that's a good thing. Why? Because such a test would invariably involve subjective judgments by the examiners. The nice thing about the examination structure we have now is that the tests are objective. The answer is right, or wrong, and there is little wiggle-room for a VE to fail a candidate for "inappropriate" reasons. There's no real way to do a practical operation test that doesn't involve subjective judgments by the VEs on whether the candidate passed or not, and as soon as you allow subjective judgments you allow for the possibility of prejudice. And that's something we just can't afford to have.

And anyway, the purpose of the tests isn't to ensure that every ham radio operator is competent at electrical engineering. The purpose of the test is to filter out people who aren't willing to take the time (in some way or another) to learn the minimum material required for the tests. The idea is that we put on the test material that we want newcomers to our hobby to be at least passingly familiar with, so that they will learn at least some of it, and by passing the test they demonstrate at least a passing commitment to learning these things as well as an understanding that our hobby has rules that everyone is expected to follow. For this purpose, the size of the pool is almost completely irrelevant; all that matters is that the questions cover the range of material that we want newcomers to be exposed to.

In short, the exams are, pretty much explicitly, a barrier to entry. Barriers to entry are always a challenge. Set them too high and you don't get enough participants; set them too low and you get people who lack sufficient attachment to the common goals and purpose of the community to feel bound to follow its rules. I think for the moment we set a pretty good balance on this issue with the current examination practices, both with the Technician (entry-level) license and with the somewhat harder General license. The more rigorous study required for General increases the likelihood that the licensee will have come to understand the importance of following the rules, which is more important for licensees with access to HF because of the worldwide propagation and much more restricted spectrum to share.

The much higher requirements for the Extra actually make sense because this is a "prestige" license; not being able to get Extra doesn't substantially exclude the licensee from much of anything (mostly, access to short callsigns, access to some of the more valuable contesting spectrum, full privileges as a volunteer examiner, and broader reciprocal privileges when traveling abroad), and so making this license substantially harder will limit it to those who show substantial commitment to the hobby, which is exactly what we want.

In my opinion, the testing system we have now is pretty close to the best one we can really hope for. We could lower standards further in the hopes of getting more hams, but I suspect we'd not get that many more active hams, just more people with licenses who don't actually use them. We could "increase standards" further by increasing the number of questions on the tests, increasing the size of the pools, or broadening the content being tested for, but that runs the risk of merely excluding people who might otherwise become licensees, without actually improving the competency of current licensees. We could institute "practical testing", but that introduces a huge opportunity for prejudicial administration of the examinations that would exclude people from the hobby for illegitimate reasons. It's certainly important that the NCVEC consistently revise the pools to ensure that the questions asked continue to expose licensees to the issues they need to be aware of, but I do not believe that any significant change to the process as it exists now would materially benefit the hobby.

Other posts on this topic that may have inspired this one: