(June 2011) I recently asked FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt about the tough time that applicants have been having on FAA Knowledge Testing (the tests that many of us still refer to as the “writtens”). Many test takers are failing the tests because the FAA has included a lot of new, previously unpublished questions that are hard to get right even if you do know your stuff. The FAA thought it would see this as proof that test takers had been gaming the system and found out instead that, if it wants to, it can get people to fail the written.
Babbitt’s response to my question on the subject was essentially that test takers need to study harder. This was a disappointing response and betrayed a misunderstanding of two things: how bad most of the FAA written tests are and how the flying public at large views the tests.
The situation used to be tenable. The FAA issued all of the questions and the test preparation industry did a commendable job of creating software and videos to help prospective test takers bone up for the written. They studied, learned a lot and memorized the answers to the worthless questions, and everyone was happy.
Or so it seemed. Things started getting dicey about a decade ago, when the FAA began to get uncomfortable with people (like me) getting perfect scores on the tests while taking very little time to complete them. They felt as though that indicated that test takers were memorizing the answers. There is a good explanation for that conclusion. The test takers were memorizing the answers.
Rule followers might think that this is cheating, and it would be if two things were true. First, if in memorizing the answers the test takers didn’t learn the knowledge being tested, it would be cheating. Second, on top of that, if the questions actually tested something important to know, then memorizing the answers would be cheating.
Many of the questions were pointless, and on those questions that did hold some meaning, the act of memorizing the questions and answers surely had some value. Rote memorization has taken a beating in education theory of late, but that’s how I learned what 7 x 8 is and how I still can come up with 56. So don’t bad-mouth memorization.
To see how bad some of the questions are, let’s take an example question from the commercial written exam.
Inbound on the 190 radial, a pilot selects the 195 radial, turns 5 degrees to the left, and notes the time. While maintaining a constant heading, the pilot notes the time for the CDI to center is 10 minutes. The ETE to the station is
A. 20 minutes
B. 15 minutes
C. 10 minutes
D. It doesn’t matter. No one ever does this in an airplane.
The correct answer, of course, is D, “It doesn’t matter. No one ever does this in an airplane.” Unfortunately, D was the only answer the FAA didn’t supply. I had to make it up myself just now. The correct answer, as far as the agency is concerned, is … well, unless you’re taking the test, it doesn’t really matter, now, does it?
So here is an example of a question that tests something no pilots need to know and will never use if they did know it. Is it cheating to memorize the answer, then? Of course it’s not.
Why, you might ask, does the FAA include such useless questions? It’s because it needs to get test takers to miss questions, for fear it will look as though the test is too easy if everybody does well. The problem is that we all work hard to get good scores on the written. This kind of a test is really all about testing minimum qualifications, not limiting the field, as is necessary with some kinds of admissions testing.
If the FAA were to write only questions that mattered and that an applicant could reasonably be expected to get right after a solid course of study, then the test would matter and no one would have a gripe.
Such, however, is far from the case, and the FAA, from Randy Babbitt on down, doesn’t get that.
Flight Sim 1930
Last month I wrote about how much Young Eagles has meant to the aviation world as a whole and how much it will mean in years to come. While only a small percentage of the group’s young people will take the keys to an airplane any time soon, there are thankfully a few great ways they can participate in flight without spending a lot of dough, and we should celebrate this fact.