Flunk Music

The state's new certification test for law-enforcement personnel has just about everyone singing the blues

Back in 1984 the state legislature's Criminal Justice Committee drafted a bill calling for all Florida law-enforcement trainees to pass a certification exam before earning a badge. Their purpose was simple: to beef up professionalism within the ranks of Florida's cops, corrections personnel, and probation officers.

But staffers with the State's Division of Criminal Justice Standards and Training, the agency assigned the task of devising the tests, insisted they would have to overhaul the curriculum used to train recruits before developing an exam. The new lesson plans were installed in 1988. The tests, though, never materialized, and were largely forgotten in the rush of other business. But in 1991, during one of the Criminal Justice Committee's regular meetings, the assembled lawmakers revisited the issue. "We wanted to know what was taking so long," recalls Elvin Martinez, a state representative from Tampa who chairs the committee. "At one point one of my colleagues stood up and said, 'Just what is going on here? Why has it taken eight years to develop this test?'" The legislators promptly drafted an amendment requiring the certification exams to be ready no later than July 1993.

This past October 15, a few months late and with little fanfare, the state administered its first round of certification exams. Since then 368 potential cops, prison guards, and probation officers have been tested. The results, however, are not likely to cheer up the members of Martinez's committee. In fact, they may eventually regret having fast tracked the exams.

While the failure rate among probation officers is a respectable 16 percent, more than 35 percent of all potential cops flunked the exam, and corrections candidates tanked at the alarming rate of 73 percent. Combined, barely half the recruits tested have passed.

Each version of the standardized tests consists of several hundred multiple-choice questions culled from a pool of 1500 and divided into five sections. (A typical item: "A fingerprint is an example of what kind of evidence?") In order to pass, students must correctly answer at least 80 percent of the questions in each section. All those who fail will have to wait at least 90 days for another stab at those sections of the test they flunked. Candidates who fail a second time must re-enroll in academy courses.

"I've heard the results were pretty grim," Martinez says. "You can be sure we'll be discussing all this within the committee when the legislature is back in session. We want to make sure those numbers improve."

Understandably, the scores have sent a ripple of panic through the several dozen academies that train Florida's cops and corrections officers. "The failure rates are just astronomical," reports Terry Bondurant, director of the Institute of Criminal Justice at Florida Keys Community College. "I've got a girl right here in my office who doesn't know what to do. Here she is, she's passed all her classes, passed her final exam here, but until she passes that last test, she's not going anywhere." Neither are the seven other candidates from his academy who flunked. Five passed. (One class of corrections students from the School of Justice and Safety Administration at Miami-Dade Community College North have been tested, but they have yet to receive results. No other local trainees have taken the exams.)

Like other academy administrators, Bondurant maintains that he favors the new certification exams. But he says state officials haven't been much help. "They won't tell us anything about this test," he complains. "We don't want the questions or anything, but they're not even giving us an idea of how the questions are structured. All we know is whether students pass or fail. So I've got to guess about areas where we may need to improve our teaching, and meanwhile I've got people failing."

Actually, that's not quite right, asserts Rick Maxey, training chief at the Division of Criminal Justice Standards and Training. "We do tell students which of the five sections they failed," he says. "That's as specific as we can be. We don't want instructors teaching to the test. Obviously the passing rate could be higher. But we're not going to lose our heads. We've looked at other states who implemented certification exams, and they all report poor passing rates in the first year. It's partly the effect of students not taking the test seriously."

Jim Humphries, who spent a year compiling the exams -- at a cost of $50,000 to the state -- insists they are not the problem. "These are not difficult tests. The questions are what we call 'knowledge-based.' They are based directly on facts and procedures in the curriculum," says Humphries, coordinator of engineering technology programs at Gainesville's Santa Fe Community College. "As long as the academies teach the curriculum and students learn the curriculum, there should be no problem. But those are two big 'ifs.'"

Humphries, however, says he is not blind to the risks of standardized tests. "The reason why a student doesn't do well on this kind of a test could be a high dose of some chemical in a McDonald's hamburger, or a bad week. If a trainee passes the standard curriculum and flunks the certification exam, I could see why they'd be upset. But you also have to ask yourself, 'Is this just sour grapes?'"

For Maxey, the question is a bit more troubling. "We're going to evaluate the results in six months to a year. If they haven't gotten better, and I mean much better, we're going to start looking at some of the academies. Only if that doesn't work will we look at the test again."

Ironically, Maxey says the test itself may be outdated in a matter of years. "We've got to face the reality that eventually people are going to know what's on the test simply by talking with other people who have taken it. So we're considering some measures other than a paper-and-pencil exam.

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