FAA accepts knowledge-test reform plan

June 21, 2012

The FAA has embraced the majority of an advisory committee’s recommendations for improving its testing materials in a prompt show of its support for the joint effort with the aviation industry to improve pilot knowledge tests.

In a meeting with industry representatives June 18, the FAA announced its plan to implement most recommendations of the Airmen Testing Standards and Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which in a new report offered nine ways the agency can enhance the content of airmen knowledge tests and improve testing methods.

AOPA and other industry organizations had requested the formation of the panel, and AOPA participated in its work to refocus knowledge testing on safety-related, practical testing material in response to concerns about unannounced changes to knowledge tests.

“This is a perfect example of what can be achieved when the FAA and the industry work cooperatively toward a common goal,” said Kristine Hartzell, chief flight instructor for the Air Safety Institute.

The FAA agreed to begin the process by creating a “stakeholder body” of subject experts to assist with development of questions and standards. The stakeholder group would also review and develop handbook content, and review current test questions.

“While many questions in the FAA knowledge test bank are valid, relevant, and good indicators of an applicant’s ability to correlate information, many other questions are written to be an exact lift of a specific passage from an FAA document, without direct application to safety of flight or necessary airman knowledge,” the report said, discussing test-question development philosophy. “This requires the applicant to train with an emphasis on rote memorization rather than understanding the big picture and application to operations.”

The report gave an example of a test question with “no practical value” that asks how many satellites make up the GPS system. The question—from the private pilot knowledge test—was accompanied by three possible answers. But the correct answer might not remain correct if new GPS satellites are launched, or if existing satellites are decommissioned, it said.

Addressing industry concerns

When the committee was convened in 2011, the flight training industry had been concerned for several years that standards, handbooks, and training materials were failing to keep pace with training methods and technology, the report said. It added that “the aviation community has also faulted the FAA for its piecemeal and often unilateral efforts to revise standards, training material, and testing methodologies.”

In May 2011, AOPA reported that the FAA had agreed to reconsider unannounced changes to some knowledge tests, and to re-score some test-takers’ exams—in some cases resulting in a passing, rather than a failing grade. The agency also agreed to revise knowledge-test guides available online, and to make changed subjects available for study for 90 days before new test questions would appear.

Among the report’s recommendations was a proposal for the FAA to transition to a single testing-standards document called the airmen testing standards, as an updated version of the practical test standards. The recommendation also offered a timetable for the transition for each pilot certificate and the instrument rating.

The committee also recommended that the FAA “urgently allocate additional resources” for improved computer capabilities to develop and deliver randomly generated knowledge tests and regularly updated figures to replace the current testing supplements.

Hartzell expressed satisfaction with the joint report and the FAA’s receptiveness to the recommendations.

“They came back with an extremely fast, positive response,” she said.