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February 22, 2002
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Really dumb test questions.

Having taken and passed the national LS exam in 1978, I was then introduced to four state exams. I started to notice a pattern of useless questions being asked of the potential licensee. And in discussions with many of you throughout the United States I find that you too are experiencing this same phenomenon. While this column is generally humor-based, I am dead serious about this topic.

It seems to me the state-specific exam is like the last chance society has to be protected from someone who really should not get a license. To arrive at this point means you have passed all the rest of the scrutiny the state board could muster. It’s like the last hoop through which one must jump. And it is in this regard that I would think the very limited time given (one or two hours in most states) should be used on important issues. The now truly “national exam” has been further diluted so as to apply in any state.

Yet, I have been asked three times this earth-shattering question: “How many members are there on the state board?” And one test asked me to tell how many years the public member of the board was to serve. Someone believed that if I did not have critical knowledge of these vital details, I should not be an LS.

Hmmmmm. Might there have been a better use of this question time? Like some specific state law that means something for the surveyor and how his or her work affects society? This is roughly equivalent to asking the barbers how many teeth are on the standard comb. Not really relevant.

Another question often asked is: “Is this state on a transverse Mercator state plane coordinate system or a Lambert grid?” Rather than ask you to calculate a problem using it, I’ve only been asked what system is used. Not very in-depth, I’d say.

I have also discovered that many state exams are loaded with personal preferences and even vendettas by their authors. When I took the Arizona exam there was a question that read: “Explain the Bowditch Rule.” Now I had never heard of this, so obviously missed the question. It was a favorite question to ask by the university professor who used to write the state exam. For those of you unfamiliar with this dynamic piece of information, you could only know it to be the compass rule if you had the secret decoder ring. Seems you had to take this professor’s test prep class to get this secret decoder ring information.

Many of you have complained to me about similar little games played in your state exams, ranging from the trivial pursuit type question, to the ones answerable only if you bought the book written by the exam author. I wonder if sometimes we have lost our way regarding the purpose of the exam. It is to genuinely test the applicant, not to make the author look smart or clever.

And speaking of clever, my California exam asked me about a rodman who held the level rod 12 degrees and 14 minutes out of plumb. It gave me other information and wanted to see if I knew some basic trigonometry. I was terribly disappointed when I discovered the multiple-choice answers did not include:
a. Train him to rock the rod
b. Fire him immediately

And how do we know it was exactly 12 degrees and 14 minutes out of plumb, anyway? That’s a better question to ask. Do plastic field-protractors come with a vernier or something?

The bottom line: For those of you who write or contribute to state-specific exams, this process needs to be greatly professionalized. It needs to weigh the limited time to test with the extremely important subjects to ask, and make sure those limited exams are worth it. Avoid trivia, pet peeves or irrelevant fodder. Surely your state statutes and case law contain enough critical information that it would be more than enough to fill the exam.

By the way, what color seats do the board members sit on when evaluating initial applications? I always wondered.

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