After a two-year hiatus, the U.S. Coast Guard has decided to put its full database of mariner examination questions back up on the Web.
In 2010, the National Maritime Center (NMC) decided to remove the full bank of deck and engine exam questions from its website, arguing that disclosing all of the questions could harm the integrity of the testing. The complete pool of questions had been available on the Web since the 1980s, when a Freedom of Information Act ruling required it.
The National Mariners Association appealed that decision to Coast Guard headquarters. In August 2012, Commandant Adm. Robert Papp’s office granted the appeal.
Taking down those exam questions from the Web had inhibited the ability of license aspirants — often low-paid deck hands — to prepare for Coast Guard examinations, said Capt. Joe Dady, president of the National Mariners Association.
“That became a problem for the hawsepiper to go out and study on his own and not have to spend a lot of money to go to a school,” Dady said. “It also took away the ability of the schools and the training programs to have up-to-date training materials.”
When the NMC removed the full pool of about 25,000 questions, it replaced them with selected sample questions. Because training programs use the NMC’s website to develop test questions in their own classes, there were fewer questions to choose from. That led to the unintended consequence of abetting instructors to “teach to the test” instead of the full range of seamanship knowledge, said Capt. John Whiteley, director of the Inland Waterways Academy at Mountwest Community & Technical College in West Virginia.
Whiteley’s academy uses an outside software provider to create unique tests from the available Coast Guard questions. Releasing the full bank of questions to the public increases the randomness of those tests.
“It helps in particular because we generate a new test anytime we have a new class,” Whiteley said. “We’ve had problems in the past because we had instructors who were teaching the test. … This is going to make the test more valid and it’s going to make the assessment of the student more valid.”
The questions pertain to areas including general deck questions, rules of the road, navigation problems and safety. Engineering topics include electricity, steam plants and motor plants. For the mariners, schools and creators of training materials, the most useful questions are those that have appeared on the most recent Coast Guard examinations. Previously, diagrams often were included too, said Richard Block, secretary of the National Mariners Association and a maritime textbook author.
“What we were trying to get back up are the latest questions — the recent ones,” Block said. “These are the red-hot exam questions that are actually given on Coast Guard exams, and they’re up-to-date.”
Another benefit is the ability of the industry to see what the Coast Guard considers to be correct answers. With the test questions hidden, mariners could not see what answer the Coast Guard expected. Before 2010, if there were errors, someone would notice.
“All the schools and the mariners would submit corrections and point out problems,” Block said. “They were constantly updated and corrected.”
In a letter granting the appeal, Capt. Paul Thomas, the Coast Guard’s director of inspections and compliance, explained that a 2011 Supreme Court decision regarding Freedom of Information Act exemptions prompted the Coast Guard to reinstate the previous policy of displaying the exam questions on the Web.
NMC commanding officer Capt. Anthony Lloyd couldn’t immediately say when the full pool of questions would be available again on the website. The NMC uses a different document system now for exam questions.
“It will occur,” Lloyd said. “My staff is working on it, but it’s taking a lot of time to prepare it. We manage it differently, and we’re doing a lot of revisions. We’ve shuttered questions that became outdated. … We’re fully committed to keeping it up-to-date.”
The NMC recently improved illustrations accompanying the exam questions, and copyright permissions need to be reviewed for those new illustrations to appear on the Web, he said.
Lloyd became the NMC’s commanding officer 10 days after his predecessor, Capt. David Stalfort, started the policy of publishing only sample questions.