The Amateur Amateur: We Have Met the Examiners, and They are Us

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
January 28, 2003

Revealed: The trials and tribulations of being a volunteer examiner.

My wife Nancy and I hit a few rocky patches back when we were working to upgrade our licenses. The problems usually involved learning the material, but occasionally we had trouble at the actual examination sessions. It sometimes appeared that the VEs (as volunteer examiners are known) were not prepared. Sometimes there seemed to be far too many examiners (it only requires three to administer an exam session), the paperwork got screwed up and frequently it took the VEs forever to grade the exams. I occasionally wondered if the exams had been graded properly. Yes, we had plenty of gripes about the VEs.

Rulebook for Volunteer Examiners

Being a volunteer examiner started out simply enough.

Then we became volunteer examiners. Imagine our surprise!

We got our licenses after attending a class taught by Mike, KA0YXU. On the last day of class, he would arrange for a VE team to administer the exams. After sometimes encountering difficulties getting a VE team to come, he decided that it would be advantageous to have a VE team organized specifically to test his classes.

Mike contacted Ken, N0BHF, Nancy and me. Ken was an Advanced-class operator, while Nancy and I held General-class licenses. We all submitted applications to become accredited volunteer examiners (there are more than a dozen Volunteer Examiner Coordinators in the US, including ARRL VEC. It was incredibly easy, and within a short period of time we received official certification.

And the instruction manual.

Let me tell you, getting the certification was easy, but following that instruction manual was not! Let me digress for a moment to explain how the system works. As most amateurs should already know, the FCC issues all amateur licenses, but it does not conduct the examinations. The FCC has authorized a number of organizations called Volunteer Examiner Coordinators (VECs) to generate and administer the exams (with questions drawn from a common "question pool" for each examination element), certify and manage the actual examiners (VEs) and to interface directly with the FCC. Volunteer examiners must follow all FCC rules governing examinations and whatever additional rules the particular VEC has imposed.

The first thing we, the newly formed VE team, had to do was to select a point of contact with the VEC for the VE team. Ken had the highest license class at the time, so he was appointed.

Ken notified the VEC that we were going to be administering an examination session. They sent him a bunch of forms and some exams. Mike, Ken, Nancy and I met to hash out the details. Believe me, it was a lot of hash. None of us had ever done this before!

We tried to anticipate every eventuality, and, actually, we didn't do too badly. But the things we didn't anticipate just about killed us.

And these can be considerable.

Exam session supplies

It subsequently expanded to include tons of supplies.

It was a dark and stormy night (really!). Ken, Nancy and I hauled a ton of materials through the drenching rain. We had brought test papers, answer sheets, FCC Forms 610 (the predecessor to the Form 605 now used), Certificates of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCEs), spare change, pencils, folders, paper clips and everything else we figured we might need.

We commandeered a table, sponged off our materials, clipped on our official VE badges, and waited for the examinees to arrive.

It didn't take long.

We started running into problems almost immediately. We had been instructed to demand two forms of identification from each examinee. People were forced to dredge up library cards, pool passes, laundry receipts and all manner of arcane identification. (We didn't accept tattoos.)

The next problem was with FCC Forms 610. Mike had distributed these to applicants the previous week, and some had been filled out incorrectly. We had to ask a few poor confused people to redo their Form 610s as many as four times. This was not a good omen.

We distributed the exams, being sure to spread them out so that no two adjacent people had the same version. The exam session began. It was only about five minutes before the first completed exam was handed in.

Each exam paper had to be graded by three VEs. There were only three of us, which meant all of us had to grade every paper. Papers began to flow in at an accelerating rate and pile up on our table. This was back when getting an entry level license required taking two examinations--the Novice written exam and the Technician written exam. We had handed out only the Novice exams, which meant that if the applicant passed, he/she now had to be handed a Technician exam. If the applicant failed, he/she had to be informed and offered the opportunity to retake the Novice exam.

It may have been the phase of the moon, it may have been the particular exams we used, or it may have been gremlins, but a lot of people failed the Novice exam on the first try.

Files from VE session

Eventually it became a massive clerical job.

Now we really started getting behind. Two of us were grading papers like mad while the third was trying to keep track of who had taken which version of what exam, take new fees from those who wished to try again, pass out new exams, fill out CSCEs for those who passed, and rush to the copy machine every few minutes. Naturally, the pile of exams waiting for the third VE to grade grew and grew and grew. Suddenly it became blindingly obvious why there were so many VEs at other exam sessions we had attended. There was a lot of work to do, and it all had to be done simultaneously!

The pile of to-be-graded papers kept growing, and we soon lost track of which should be done first. We were grading one person's third attempt at the Technician exam while another person's first attempt at the Novice exam sat at the bottom of the stack. It seemed as though were screwing up big time. My antipathy toward VEs I'd encountered in the past began shifting--first to sympathy, then to outright admiration.

Amazingly, we didn't mess up the paperwork--although at first we did fail to give some people CSCEs they had earned. We finally finished and staggered out late that night, shuddering, with the knowledge that we would have to do it all over again in two days!

Yes, a second session had been scheduled for two days later. That second session was for people who couldn't make it the first evening or who had attended, but had not passed (we were trying to be accommodating).

Ken, Nancy and I had a flurry of telephone and e-mail conversations. We revised our rules and operating procedures. We agreed on a stringent retesting policy. We devised a method of prioritizing the to-be-graded pile. And we prayed.

Fortunately for all concerned, the second session went much more smoothly. We were able to correct the faux pas we made during the first session. People returning from the first session had spent their time studying, and most of them passed. Pats on the back for everyone!

We all went home, exhausted, and wondered: Is it always this tough?

We'll have more VE adventures in a future column.

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995 and is accredited as a volunteer examiner with the ARRL VEC and the W5YI-VEC programs. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via email.

© 2003 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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