The Amateur Amateur: We Have Met the Examiners, and They are Us
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
trials and tribulations of being a volunteer examiner.
January 28, 2003
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.
Being a volunteer examiner started out simply enough.
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
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
. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
exam sessions we had attended. There was a lot
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.
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.
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
We'll have more VE adventures in a future column.
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
page. Readers are invited to contact the author
© 2003 American Radio Relay League