Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Firefighter's Exam

Last week, I took the firefighter's exam. It was in McCormick, so I rode the Cermak bus all the way East. The ride was awesome--the bus was full of test candidates, so when we hit Chinatown traffic, you could tell who we were cause we all looked nervous that we'd be late.

The test itself was terrible. The last time the city gave the test, they gave a test riddled with cultural bias, and ended up having to pay millions of dollars in compensation to minority candidates who were turned away.Some might roll their eyes at this, but if so, I suggest you research the topic further. After all, whether a particular test is culturally biased is open to debate, but to mock any suggestion of the possibility is rather flat-earther, as we can certainly all conceive a biased exam, right?

What I can tell you conclusively is that millions of dollars and years of consulting later, the test was still rife with cultural bias. To support this contention concretely, I'm in a tough position. I signed a statement saying I wouldn't repeat the exact test questions, but I also want to explain this injustice. So let me tell you the general idea and I'll have faith that you'll evaluate my situation fairly.

Since the general test sections are publically available through the city testing guide, I'll start with those. There are two sections. One is a personality test and the other is a reading comprehension/language section. The personality test is something I could improve upon in five minutes. The explanation is "there are no wrong answers", but each question has an answer that is clearly desired. However, they attempt to prevent people from just selecting this answer by claiming in the instructions that the test is "designed to detect dishonest answers". What they mean is that it has that lame-ass "rephrasing the questions in five ways" technique to check for "consistency". Basically, it just tests whether someone has had enough academic English experience to lie in five different ways.

To those who say, "So what, that's part of being educated", I say, "What's the point?" Are we trying to reinforce bad social conventions or are we trying to find the very best firefighters?

The reading/comprehension section was a little better. Some of the questions were case scenarios which dealt with actual firefighting situations. Others were excerpts from manuals with questions checking understanding. Still, half of this section was questions checking spelling and conjugating verb tenses.

I suppose this is so that this scenario never occurs in the city of Chicago:
Lincoln Park Trixie: Save me! Save me! Cubs rule!
Chicago Firefighter: Come to the window quick! Don't raises youse head! Ceiling are hottest!
LPT: What? Your English is so imperfect, I can't understand!
Chicago Firefighter: Lady, just get the fuck over here and don't have raising your head!
LPT: Don't curse at me! And use proper verb tenses! Can I really trust you? Spell the word "ennui".
Chicago Firefighter: ...
LPT: *Bursts into flames*

I checked into what the city actually did change since last adminstration of the test. Basically, their miraculous fix was to just use the same testing style and make it pass/fail rather than score based. It's a minor improvement--It's like feeding your children a teaspoon of rat poison instead of a tablespoon--it's less likely to kill them, but it still doesn't make it good nutrition.

The irony is that this change probably hurts me. I tend to destroy all comers in standardized tests, and all told, I was unsure on one of the ten dozen or so questions.

But my goal is not to have a city where I get to pass all the tests I want to thanks to my style of education. I would like to see the city figure out a way to design a test that will actually select the best firefighters. If they can't do it, they should give me a call. I'm not an expert, but I think I could at least make half of the items have something to do with skills one might use in firefighting.
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