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Re: [SEAOC] RE: Structural Engineer registration

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Lew,

Before you make wild statements about the California SE exam and how it is 
administered, you should check your facts.

You wrote:
>"...  Half of the questions are ambiguous, 
>and attempting to answer 20 of them in 16 hours requires a lot of luck.  Many 
>of the questions are so poorly written that it often takes 5 to 10 minutes of
>study and re-reading to just figure out what the question is asking. "

I have twice served as a grader for the SE exam.  While I agree with you that 
the time element is problematical for examinees, the problems themselves are 
not, IMHO, ambiguous.  You must remember that, in a design office, you don't 
immediately start calculating.  You must first review the problem at hand.  
Then, after fully understanding what is required, you begin.  If a problem 
didn't require such thought, it probably would be trivial.

You further wrote:
>"... The exams are graded by the same individuals who wrote the questions and
>they often think there's only one way to solve *their* problem; but, as
>you know, an experienced engineer can easily find numerous ways to
>solve a problem.  If the gradee picks a method that the grader doesn't
>agree with, or worse doesn't understand, should the gradee be penalized?"

You are correct in the statement that problem authors participate in grading the 
exams.  But MOST of the graders have not participated in writing a problem on 
the exam they are grading.  In the grading session for the concrete portion of 
the exam held in December (in which I participated), the author of the problem 
being graded was one of the graders.  He not only did not think there was only 
"one way to solve "their" problem" but actively helped the remainder of the team 
to look for as many other reasonable ways to answer the questions as possible.  
Regarding "the gradee picks a method that the grader doesn't agree with, or 
worse doesn't understand", the grading process works as follows: 1) each grader 
is furnished the problem to be graded and the "author's solution" well in 
advance of the grading session.  2) On the day of the grading, all graders meet 
and develop a detailed breakdown (grading plan) of the problem into its basic 
elements and agree what portion of the total point value will be assigned to 
each of those elements.  3) Each portion of the exam is graded by two different 
graders (who must all be licensed SE's) without the knowledge of the other 
grader's scores.  BORFPELS staff compares the scores given.  If the scores do 
not agree within very narrow limits, the two graders get together and review why 
they scored the problem as they did.  If the two graders still do not agree on a 
score, a third grader is assigned the problem and scores the problem without any 
knowledge of the previous graders scoring.  Two of the three graders must again 
agree within very narrow limits on the score given.  Only after all this happens 
does BORFPELS assign a score to that problem.  This process effectively ensures 
that no examinee is penalized because one of the graders did not understand the 
solution presented.

You question why the exam covers basic, general and "simplistic" structural 
engineering concepts.  In my experience grading exams and in supervising the 
work of licensed civil engineers doing structural work, these are precisely the 
things that are screwed up most often.  If a person understands first principles 
and their application to structural engineering, they usually can do the more 
complex tasks readily.  If they don't, the complex tasks are well beyond their 
capability.  The civil exam, because it must cover a wider variety of subjects 
in one-half the time, does not test these items effectively.

You question whether the exam measures what it purports to measure.  I believe 
that no written exam can "guarantee" that the individual tested should be a 
structural engineer.  There are many intangibles in that evaluation.  I believe, 
however, that the exam, as administered, does about as well as can be done to 
establish a MINIMUM LEVEL OF COMPETENCE required to hold oneself out to the 
public as a specialist in a branch of civil engineering that affects the lives 
and safety of the public.  The areas where one must have an SE license to 
practice generally protect: 1) the most vulnerable (school kids and hospital 
patients) or 2) those operations (emergency response facilities like police and 
fire stations, emergency operations centers, etc.) which are vital to the 
public's well-being following a major earthquake. 

Regarding the low pass rate and whether the test is valid because of it, the 
medical analogy of whether a General Practicioner is qualified to do brain 
surgery or does (s)he need to be further qualified as a neurosurgeon applies.  
In general, the public relies heavily on whether the State believes a person is 
qualified to practice a particular profession or a specialized part of it.  In 
its convoluted way, the State attempts to regulate structural engineering by 
regulating the use of the title: Structural Engineer.  BORFPELS continually 
monitors statistics to relate how the current exam relates to past exams.  These 
statistics, as well as the collective judgement of the several hundred 
practioners who actually grade the exams, are used in establishing the passing 
level for the exam.  Is this a perfect process? No.  Is there a better way? I 
challenge you to find one.

The angry tone of your note suggests that you may be one of those individuals 
that hasn't "made the grade" to be "called" a structural engineert yet.  Ron 
Hamburger appropriately noted that anyone who regularly practices structural 
enginering and believes himself competent in this area should sit for the exam. 
Rather than railing against the system, get involved in devising a better way to 
evaluate potential SE's and if you haven't yet made the grade study hard and try 
again.

Bill Cain, SE
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