May 10, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
As discussions proceeded between the aviation industry and regulators on the impact of unannounced alterations to the knowledge testing system, a major flight training institution joined in the call for the FAA to change course.
In an April 25 letter to the FAA, Sporty’s Academy Inc. stated its belief that the agency, though professing to support in-depth understanding of knowledge test subjects in concept, pursues practices that encourage applicants to use rote learning and memorization methods to pass tests.
Sporty’s offered as examples of the problem “old or outdated written test questions with multiple correct answers or no correct answers; grainy or difficult-to-read knowledge test guides which make correct answers elusive; and test questions requiring calculations with answer choices that only vary by mere percentage points which arguably provide little or no educational value.”
The four-page letter, signed by Sporty’s Academy President Eric Radtke and Vice Presidents Paul Jurgens and Bret Koebbe, was sent following an April 20 meeting at the FAA’s Oklahoma City, Okla., offices between AOPA, Sporty’s, other industry representatives, and officials of the Airman Testing Standards Branch.
Both before and after the meeting, AOPA has called for the FAA to expunge from applicants’ files knowledge test failures that occurred after the unannounced test changes. A spike in some tests’ failure rates was strong evidence of the tests’ lack of validity and reliability. Since the tests are not valid, a failure on these exams should not be maintained on a pilot’s permanent record, AOPA said.
An additional problem is the discouragement factor that such a test experience confers on students who study diligently from recommended materials but fail the tests. Sporty’s letter cited the cases of two students “with multiple failures” who put in long hours and intense effort studying areas where prior failures had occurred, using up-to-date materials. “While eventually successful, the cost of testing and personal discouragement was substantial,” the letter said. AOPA is also urging the FAA to reinstate the previous test question banks, noting that one knowledge test—the fundamentals of instruction, a required test for initial flight instructor applicants and the test taken by the students noted above—continues to produce about a 50-percent failure rate.
The FAA has not responded to the requests, but agreed at the meeting to use a more inclusive approach when considering future knowledge-test reforms.
Sporty’s letter also recommended that the FAA “purge” newly added questions, and review questions that force applicants to “memorize text” in order to answer correctly.
Sporty’s dismissed the FAA’s rationale for the low pass rate—that applicants only studied “test prep” materials—as “flawed.” The academy committed to working with industry and the FAA to continue the effort to “teach the subject, not the test.”
Until more fundamental, coordinated changes may be made to the knowledge testing process, “we must not penalize the instructional and pilot applicant community,” the Sporty’s executives wrote.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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