Coast Guard halts public disclosure of MMC exam questions

The U.S. Coast Guard is no longer publicly disclosing its Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) examination questions, a change instituted under the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 that some stakeholders say will reduce the number of credentials issued.

The act, which became law in February, included several requirements regarding the MMC. One of them called for the Coast Guard to “cease public disclosure of examination questions and other information related to exams,” a step announced by the service in a July bulletin. Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Katie Braynard said the change was an act of Congress, and “the Coast Guard supported the enactment of this legislation.”

News of the removal of the exams from the National Maritime Center (NMC) website in September came as a blow to some members of the maritime community. Without a clear understanding of the Coast Guard’s rationale for supporting the regulation, stakeholders were left to speculate.

“Whatever the reasons, (the Coast Guard) raised the bar really high,” said James J. Sanders, a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots and a deck officer for nearly 30 years. Sanders predicted “a major decline in the number of (academy) cadets passing (MMC) exams from now on.”

Capt. Tuuli Messer-Bookman, marine transportation professor at California Maritime Academy (CMA), said, “In my opinion, every candidate will have a poorer chance of succeeding on any (Coast Guard) exams without the bank being available to study. … The breadth and depth of the exam is simply staggering.”

Braynard said the Coast Guard did not expect the change to impact mariners seeking credentials, “and we do not expect to see significant reductions in the number of credentials issued.”

The Coast Guard first published its pool of MMC exams in the late 1980s, “in hard copy in what became known as the ‘yellow book,’” Braynard said.

Capt. Scott D. Carter, a 1986 CMA graduate, said he and his classmates relied on the book for passing MMC exams, “especially Rules of the Road and Navigation sections that required a 90 percent or better to pass.”

“The caveat was the CG’s answers were not always correct,” Carter said, adding that in order to avoid the time-consuming process of officially challenging the Coast Guard for the points, “we used the (yellow book) to study the questions according to the CG’s answer key.”

Braynard said the Coast Guard was aware that “some mariners were in fact memorizing questions and answers rather than using the questions to assist in study of the subjects that are tested.”

In place of MMC exams previously available on the NMC website, Braynard said the Coast Guard posted a new outline, information on the subjects that will be tested for each endorsement, and a sample examination for that endorsement. The Coast Guard, she said, considers these materials “sufficient to prepare mariners for MMC exams.”

“I respectfully hold a different opinion,” Messer-Bookman said. “One sample exam is not enough scope to offer meaningful guidance to test candidates … (it) does not contain all possible question types. If candidates focused only on the topics presented on the single sample exam, I can almost guarantee their failure.”

Conversely, Braynard said, “We anticipate that our actions will encourage mariners to focus their efforts on learning the relevant subjects, and that our sample examinations may be used to supplement their efforts by identifying the mariners’ strengths and weaknesses.”

As for course materials used by maritime academies and training facilities, Braynard said, “We have no immediate plans to change the subjects, and therefore curriculum should not have to be adjusted as a result of this change.” For now, instruction at the facilities “should not be significantly impacted by our actions,” she said.

Messer-Bookman said she’s not convinced. She said having access to the exam pools has been “the backbone of all (maritime academies’) license prep classes where we only review USCG questions.”

According to Messer-Bookman, all mariners and instructors “should have the ability to review how many questions of each type there are, know what specific topics (the Coast Guard) is emphasizing and which are most likely to appear on an exam.”

Braynard said the authorization act “provides for the formation of a group of experts from the industry to review the questions,” and that the Coast Guard is “in the process of putting together the group to conduct the initial exam question review.”

The panel will be composed of a Coast Guard expert; representatives from training facilities, state maritime academies, the Merchant Marine Personnel Advisory Committee (MERPAC) and other Coast Guard federal advisory committees; a subject-matter expert from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd); and a human performance technology representative. Their job is to address question accuracy, the availability of exam references, the length of each exam, and the use of standard technologies in administering, scoring and analyzing the exams.

After reviewing exam prep materials available on the NMC website, Messer-Bookman said group members will have their work cut out for them.

“There’s a wide disconnect between the foundational education and the expectations of the testing body,” she said. “Right now, questions seem to be plucked from so many disparate sources. There’s no clear guidance on subjects, and modules are far too broad. There’s no reference provided to look up the formula for breaking strain of a shackle, required thickness of a steel plate, any stability formulae, or slip and efficiency formulae, all of which a candidate is expected to memorize.”

“The question bank belongs to the citizens and serves the maritime industry, the environment and the nation as a whole,” she said. “I would hope the committee would unanimously take it as their job to clearly define the stakeholders, and make the exam serve those stakeholders as appropriately as possible.”

By Professional Mariner Staff