Creating a national exam.

Are the licensure examinations developed by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) relevant to today's surveying practice? A March POB article, Offsets "The surveyor's new clothes," asserts that they are not. In May, POB Online's Quick Poll asked website visitors if they believe the NCEES exams are relevant to today's practice. Of the 129 respondents, 45 percent said they are not, 43 percent said they are somewhat relevant but need updating, and 12 percent believe the exams to be completely relevant.

These views raise the question of who decides the content of the Fundamentals of Land Surveying (FLS) and the Principles and Practice of Land Surveying (PLS) exams. The answer is actually a testament to the relevance of the exams. That's because practicing land surveyors essentially determine the examination content. The exams represent the collective experience of a broad spectrum of licensed land surveyors.

Selecting the content for the exams is an involved process that starts with a job analysis known as the Professional Activities and Knowledge Study (PAKS). An NCEES Special Committee on PAKS-Land Surveying is appointed to develop specifications for the land surveying examinations based on the knowledge areas (skills) necessary to accomplish the activities performed by the profession. The committee members are all licensed and practicing surveyors. They carry out their work in conjunction with NCEES staff, the Committee on Examinations for Professional Surveyors, and psychometric consultants, The Chauncey Group.

At the beginning of an exam's development, PAKS are sent to a diverse group of licensed land surveyors in all NCEES jurisdictions. The survey includes five parts:

  1. Letter of introduction and statement of purpose
  2. List of tasks
  3. List of knowledges and skills necessary to perform the tasks
  4. List of major domains identified by an expert committee
  5. Biographical and demographic questionnaire

Surveyors Rate Tasks

The PAKS Committee creates the list of tasks done by surveyors in all NCEES jurisdictions. The varying ages, regions and practice backgrounds of the committee members allow the PAKS structure to reflect the many aspects of the land surveying practice.

The most recent PAKS distributed in May 2003 contained a list of eight major task areas (project planning/management, research, field procedures, measurement science, survey analysis, legal principles and boundary reconciliation, land planning and design, and documentation) and 58 subcategories. The subcategories include topics such as: determine and secure entry rights (project planning/management); measure using differential leveling (measurement science); and determine locations of boundary lines and encumbrances (legal principles and boundary reconciliation).

The PAKS questionnaire states that each section of the survey lists tasks used in the practice of land surveying. Respondents are asked to rate these tasks with this in mind: "At the time of licensure, how important is the competent performance of each of these tasks in protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public?"

The survey offers the following choices for rating each task:

  • Of no importance (value 0)
  • Of minor importance (value 1)
  • Important (value 2)
  • Very important (value 3)
  • Extremely important (value 4)

The questionnaire also asks respondents how well the list covers tasks they feel are important to the profession and whether any tasks not on the list should have been considered.

Generally, if a subcategory receives an average rating of 2.5 or higher-halfway between "important" and "very important" according to the survey respondents-it will be on the PLS exam. Subcategories rated "of no importance" or "of minor importance" are not included on the exam.

Respondents Define the Knowledge Areas Needed

The PAKS questionnaire also provides a list of knowledge areas (skills) and asks which ones practicing surveyors think are necessary to perform the tasks. It divides the knowledge areas into five domains: standards and specifications, legal principles, professional survey practices, business/professional practices and types of surveys. Respondents rate 62 subcategories within these domains, such as common/case law boundary principles (legal principles); research of public/private record sources (professional survey practices); and ALTA/ACSM surveys (types of surveys). In the knowledge areas section, respondents must rate the subcategories using the same system ("very important," "important," etc.) used in the task section. They are asked if any important knowledge areas are not covered in the questionnaire. Again, a value of 2.5 is generally necessary for an area to be included on the exam.

Respondents are then asked, using the list of knowledge areas, for their opinion of what percentage of the exam should cover each of the five knowledge domains. The average of these percentages set by the respondents are used to set the percentages used in the actual examination.

For the FLS, similar ratings of knowledge statements help the NCEES committee identify what is meant by a minimum level of competence in the basic knowledge areas of surveying. Respondents again rate the knowledge areas of the five domains and state what percentage of the exam each should occupy. In the case of the FLS examination, the rule of 2.5 produces some inconsistencies with the recommended percentages; the committee reconciles these inconsistencies in favor of the percentages. Again, the knowledge subcategories appear on the exam in the percentages determined by the respondents.

Surveyors Write the Questions

Licensed volunteers write the exam questions to cover the items that receive high ratings on the PAKS. The Colonial States Land Surveyors Organization, New Jersey Land Surveyors, Florida Surveying and Mapping Society, and other groups hold item-writing (question-writing) workshops. These workshops supply the questions needed for the FLS and PLS exams. An item-writing session was held at the most recent ACSM/NSPS annual meeting by Rita Lumos, chair of the NCEES Committee on Examinations for Professional Surveyors.

New questions are constantly being added to the item bank, and older questions are reviewed for their value in today's practice. A subject matter expert reviews each item to see if it meets basic criteria for a question. Six other surveyors review the question to make sure it is a good question, is not regional, is not a trick question, is not too easy, is pertinent to today's practice, and would not take too long to solve. The surveyor's examination committee then reviews the total exam at least three times to ensure that it is a quality exam and to prevent mistakes from appearing in the exam.

For the most recent PAKS, 5,234 licensed land surveyors received the questionnaire. Additionally, some GIS and photogrammetric professionals received the questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to take approximately 30 to 45 minutes to complete. Each person receiving a PAKS also received a follow-up letter stressing the importance of returning the questionnaire. The survey had a 33.19 percent return. According to professional job analysts, this is a high percent. Yet approximately 3,400 registered land surveyors did not respond. Our challenge is to convince all of our fellow professional surveyors that they can make a difference in defining exam content and the important continuing and emerging knowledge needed in modern practice.

The subject areas, subcategories and their percentages applied to the exams can be found on the NCEES website,, for both the FLS and PLS exams.