This approach was necessary, in part, because many questions retained in the updated system were prepared before World War II. Licensing examiners were often individuals who had sailed in the merchant marine and who held deck or engineer merchant marine licenses and had the professional expertise needed to evaluate subjective responses to licensing exam questions.

In 1953, the USCG conducted a major study of the examination process. In addition to the unevenness and obsolescence previously noted, the agency found that the essay system had been compromised. Wohlfarth (1978) found that:

This compromise occurred with the compilation of "ponies" which accurately reproduced license examination questions. Allegedly some were exact duplicates of the card files maintained by the examiners.

A part of the compromise problem was the tendency of some schools to teach from such ponies, and the inclination of some license applicants to learn solely from ponies by rote memorization.

The U.S. Coast Guard was partially responsible for the existence of such ponies through its failure to conduct timely revisions to eliminate obsolete, ambiguous, and incorrect questions. Some license applicants felt compelled to study such ponies in order to learn "the answers required by the U.S. Coast Guard," thus enhancing their chances of passing the examination.

Although the 1953 study did not lead to direct changes, its findings indirectly resulted in the inclusion of multiple-choice questions for the first time in license examinations. Although there are several exceptions, the USCG ultimately changed its license program to rely almost exclusively on multiple-choice examinations to ascertain an individual's competence. One exception is a requirement that candidates for pilot licenses or endorsements draw a chart from memory of the route for which pilotage is sought. Candidates for master, mate, and pilot licenses must also complete USCG-approved training leading to issuance of a radar observer certificate. With these exceptions, there are no federal marine license requirements that incorporate a demonstration of competency.

The shift to the multiple-choice format began in 1969. Education Testing Services (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey, was contracted to study all aspects of the marine licensing program. The study resulted in recommendations for interim and long-term improvements. In response to the study, the USCG:

  • developed job descriptions for masters and mates, and
  • eliminated essay questions from the license examinations, substituting multiple-choice questions.

The ETS was contracted to prepare the job descriptions and to develop multiple-choice examinations.

The job descriptions were developed in broad consultation with the marine community. Consultants were subcontracted to write the multiple-choice questions, which were protested at some of the maritime academies, union schools, and USCG marine inspection offices. Acceptable questions became part of printed

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