FPE Extra Issue 8, August 2016

PE Exam Evolution: Transitioning the Fire Protection Engineering Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam to Computer-based Testing

By Tony Militello, P.E., FSFPE

Fire protection engineering exams were first administered nationally in 1981 by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), which, in the United States, is the organization responsible for developing, administering and scoring the examinations used for engineering and surveying licensure. Since then, those seeking to demonstrate minimum competency in fire protection engineering filed into auditoriums, lecture halls, gymnasiums, convention centers, fairground pavilions and other testing locations as diverse as the candidate population to sit for the administration of the fire protection engineering principles and practice of engineering exam.

Those first exams were administered in a pencil-and-paper format much like they are today. While the principles of fire protection engineering and many other engineering disciplines remain timeless, engineering in practice increasingly depends on using and leveraging the advantages of electronic media and technology. It is only fitting that the method to evaluate the minimum competency of engineering and surveying practitioners mirrors the evolution seen in the profession’s practice.

At its annual meeting in 2010, NCEES decided to begin converting the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) exams, traditional precursors to the Professional Engineering (PE) and Professional Surveying (PS) exams, respectively, to computer-based testing (CBT). At that meeting, the Council set a transition date of January 2014.

Fast forward two years, and in 2012 NCEES unanimously decided to transition the PE and PS exams as well. Rather than set a hard deadline for transition, NCEES emphasized that with 25 different PE exams in 17 different engineering disciplines, each PE and PS exam conversion to CBT will transition at its own uniquely designed pace based on the needs of that discipline. NCEES Chief Executive Officer Jerry Carter said, “the language approved by the Council was at the earliest feasible date, and NCEES will move carefully and deliberately to ensure that the exam continues to reliably measure professional competence.”

The computer-based exam experience. Posted with permission of the NCEES.

Extensive planning, preparation and organization allowed NCEES to announce in January 2014 that the FE and FS exams were fully transitioned to CBT and heretofore are being administered exclusively at Pearson VUE test centers. This major accomplishment served as momentum to the transition process for the PE and PS exams.

New Exam Locations and Process

So what does that mean for the fire protection engineering principles and practice exam? It means a transition from the current look and feel of the exam to an end state that in almost every way mirrors the administration of the FE and FS exams. Most notably, exams will be administered exclusively at Pearson VUE test centers, which offer far more locations than most states currently offer examinees. Exam administration will be computer-based, computations will be permitted on provided dry-erase tablets and electronic reference material will be provided as part of the exam. Registration will still be completed through NCEES, and the development of the supplied reference is the herculean undertaking of the SFPE PE Exam Development Committee.

In 2015, the NCEES exam development engineer, SFPE technical director and SFPE PE Exam Development Committee chair carefully evaluated the steps and volunteer efforts needed for a successful transition to CBT and developed a timeline that tentatively targets 2020 for the first computer-based administration of the fire protection engineering principles and practice professional engineering exam. As already mentioned, the most important step is the transition from examinee-supplied references to a standard reference supplied to all examinees at the test administration site.

Currently, the written items available to create an 80-item multiple–choice exam reference include countless pages in dozens of handbooks, codes, standards, charts, tables and equations. Dependence on this vast body of knowledge is evidenced by the wagons, wheelbarrows, carts and crates of books examinees have traditionally brought with them to exam sites. The transition to CBT shifts the weight of providing those references from the examinees—who will no longer be able to bring references into the exam—to NCEES and the SFPE PE Exam Development Committee, which must develop and publish a supplied reference that includes adequate information for examinees to be able to successfully complete the exam.

Fortunately, with foresight of this eventuality, the exam items that have been written in the past several years have limited their references to the SFPE Fire Protection Engineering Handbook and the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook. The natural evolution of accessing new items and retiring outdated items has gradually reduced the expansive number of references to a critical dozen. Members of the SFPE PE Exam Development Committee met at NCEES headquarters to begin in earnest the development of a supplied reference. Volunteers in attendance reviewed every current exam item and identified the equation, table or chart necessary to complete them. With this information, a rough draft of a supplied reference is currently being developed. This supplied reference will go through editing and evaluation and is expected to be made available in 2018 prior to the exam administration so examinees can become familiar with the layout and format of the reference well in advance of the transition to CBT.

Benefits of CBT

Finally, computer-based testing provides many advantages for both examinees and NCEES. NCEES gains enhanced security and better uniformity in testing conditions with the move to CBT. The most common advantage for FE and FS examinees is the increased flexibility of being able to schedule an exam at a time and location that work best for the examinee and to receive their results within seven to 10 days. Unfortunately, the flexibility in test date is not initially foreseen for examinees taking the fire protection engineering PE exam. Accurate and psychometrically reliable scoring of the exams is critically dependent on the number of examinees that sit for each exam administration. With a decade long history of more than 200 examinees taking the fire protection engineering exam each October, initial expectations are that it will be able to be offered only once per year to retain its current exceptional quality and robust reliability.

With the FE and FS exams transition successfully behind us, a preliminary plan in place and a tentative transition deadline ahead of us, our view toward 2020 is 20/20!

Tony Militello is with the U.S. Department of the Navy (energy, installations and environment) and chair of SFPE’s Professional Qualifications Committee.

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