Thursday, July 16, 2009

Exams for Firefighters

The confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotamayor has brought a lot to the TV about her ruling that a qualification test for promotion in the fire department was thrown out because an insufficient number of blacks passed it. This, of course, meant that the whites who were discriminated against filed suit and the Supreme Court sort of sided with them even though Sotamayor ruled the other way. The claim by the blacks and those who support Sotamayor's ruling state that blacks do not do well on multiple choice exams, are not as well prepared as those who actually study for the exam, and blah, blah, blah.
In my years as a medical school Professor, I have given a large number of exams and the rules of the game hold that even though much of the content of the lectures is largely the same from year to year, students are given access to all the exams given over the previous few years. Therefore, in order for us to really discern whether the students have learned the material, it is necessary to construct an exam in which the questions have been varied in such a way as to distribute the performance over a wide enough span to make a proper assessment. This leads me to my proposal for qualifying exams such as the one for promotion in the fire department in New Haven, Connecticut.
Go to all the minority firefighters in the pool of potential promotees and have them make up an exam. Have them make up the questions and provide the answers. Go over the questions with them and establish that in fact they make sure a fire officer knows about building materials, fire suppression agents vis a vis the nature of the fire and so forth. Exclude the white applicants from the process. Now, take the resulting test questions, rephrase them, switch the alternate (wrong) responses, and give the exam to everyone. After this, let the chips fall where they may and hopefully avoid complaints about the unfairness of the exam and maybe even absurd court cases.

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