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An argument in favor of test appeals

If candidates who were just a few points from the cut-off score were allowed to move forward in the test-taking process, they might have a chance at getting an overall score worth promotion

Every so often, I receive a telephone call or e-mail from an officer wanting information about how to appeal the results of a test s/he took for promotion. Most agencies use the “hurdle approach” where a score of 70 percent on a written examination is needed to proceed to other phases of the examination process. So an officer who received a 69 percent on the exam for a promotion to Sergeant, for example, would miss the cut by one point and would be out of the process.

No one has ever been able to explain to me how came up with 70 percent as a cut-off score, or why a cut-off score is even used in the first place. As I have discussed in previous articles, a job task analysis must be used to determine what knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal traits to test candidates for. This is how the “parts and weights” of the testing process are determined.

For example, if the job task analysis found that oral communication skills were a critical component of the position in question, then some sort of oral test would be used during the exam. If the exam weighs 60 percent for the written examination (multiple choice test, essay, true/false, in-basket) and 40 percent for an oral test, using a cut-off score may eliminate viable candidates for promotion who just are not good written test takers.

If candidates who were just a few points from the cut-off score were allowed to move forward in the test-taking process, they might have a chance at getting an overall score worth promotion. For example, if a candidate who received a 69 percent on the written examination was allowed to move forward to an oral test, and then scored a 94 percent on the oral portion, s/he would have a final score of 79 percent. This would best an officer who received a 70 percent on the written exam and a 70 percent on the oral exam by nine full points.

When I ask agencies why they use a cut-off score, the typical answer is “That’s the way we have always done it,” or “There would be too many people who would pass and we would have to have multiple oral boards for weeks.” So much for the integrity of the testing process.

So, the officer who received a 69 percent on the written examination is out of the process and can’t believe that after studying for months, s/he scored too low. As is typical in most cities and towns, the officer is usually told that s/he can’t review the examinations materials. In another scenario, an officer receives a very high mark in the written part of the examination (95 percent) and a very low mark on the oral part of the test (68 percent) and wants to review the scores and notes the three oral panel members recorded, but is told there is no review process for the oral portion of the test. There is absolutely no reason why candidates for promotion don’t have access to review the marks they received or to challenge or appeal any part of the testing process.

Here is how it should work: Before the written examination is administered, the vendor hired to develop the test should create an analysis of the correct answer to each question and where those questions/answers come from. Here is a typical answer analysis:

Example Question:
Answer (A): “The goal of discipline is to produce desirable behavior,” Page 133 of Effective Police Supervision (EPS)
Answer (B) is incorrect; punishment is negative discipline and is not a “goal,” but is to be used when all else has been tried and failed. Page 139 of EPS
Answer (C) is incorrect: “Discipline should never be an end in and of itself,” Page133 of EPS
Answer (D) is incorrect, it is a method of identifying deviant behavior, not a goal of discipline in an organization, Page 140 of EPS

If the test is a 100-question, multiple choice exam, each question should have an analysis of what the correct answer is and where the answer was derived from as illustrated above.

After the test results are announced, candidates who took the exam should be given an opportunity to receive the test booklet, their answer sheet, and an analysis of each question. They should be able to appeal any answer by citing a specific source in the reading list indicating the answer they chose was in fact correct. If the appeal is granted, then all scores should be properly adjusted. This “adjusting of scores” is what bothers city and town personnel administrators.

However, I did have one case in which a candidate for Sergeant appealed a written test question involving search and seizure, and was correct in pointing out that two of the four answer selections were technically correct. This then involved adding, not subtracting points to some candidates.

The value in having an appeal process is that it adds integrity to the test and overall test validity. Police officers are suspicious by nature, and not allowing them to review the test answers fosters rumors that the “administration” had a hand in fixing the results. Allowing for test review mitigates grievances and promotes employee satisfaction in the selection process.

Reviewing Test Scores
It’s very difficult to appeal the results of a police promotional examination or gain access to test results if your city or town does not have a test appeal process. You can write letters and file a complaint with your human resource or personnel department, and/or the mayor or city council, but it has been my experience that after weeks or months waiting for a reply, you will receive a form letter containing language indicating that after an internal review the city or town is satisfied that the results are accurate.

You may also be told it’s a moot point because promotions have already been made. You can contact your union, but this often pits one union member who passed the test against a union member who did not. You might hire an attorney to rattle some swords about filing a civil suit unless you have access to test records, but this is very costly and make take years to resolve.

The answer is in negotiation with the city of town for future testing. In most police departments, a promotion means increase in rank – from officer to Sergeant, Sergeant to Lieutenant, and lieutenant to Captain. Since many agencies are getting around the civil service testing process by “appointing” personnel by fiat from the Chief of Police to positions such as Detective, Commander, or Deputy Chief, let’s begin by defining a “promotion” as any assignment which provides personnel with higher pay.

A “testing” process would be defined as any means including an “interview” or appointment by the Chief of Police placing personnel in a position in which there is an increase in compensation. There should be specific language relative to the type of testing process, the parts and weights of the various components of the test, and the ability of candidates for promotion to have a reasonable opportunity to review and appeal individual test results. Although I have not always been a proponent of having union contractual language regarding the promotional testing process, I now have little faith that without specific contractual language, cities or towns will move in this direction on their own.

There is an awful lot at stake — current salary and future pension money to name just two — in the promotion process. There is no reason that an officer can’t have a fair, valid, reasonable, and prudent appeals process when seeking advancement in the law enforcement profession. I would be interested in listening to any explanation from readers about why candidates should not be allowed to review their test scores.

Be safe out there!
Larry the Jet

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.