PS Exam Changes

The Principles & Practice of Land Surveying exam has upcoming changes, effective January 2019. 

Almost every land surveyor who has gained professional licensure in the past 50 years has likely taken two exams created and administered by The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). NCEES is a “nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing professional licensure for engineers and surveyors,” primarily by administering licensing exams, among other roles.

Land surveyors recognize NCEES for administering the Fundamentals of Land Surveying (FS) and Principles & Practice of Land Surveying (PS) exams. While both of these exams have been administered by NCEES for several decades, the content, scope, and delivery methods have drastically changed since many current licensed surveyors took the exams early in their careers.

I wrote this article primarily to educate soon-to-be test takers about the upcoming changes to the PS exam effective January 2019. But many lessons discussed here are applicable to all NCEES exams because how the NCEES exams are created and how they are graded—two important topics for any surveying or engineering examinee—are also explained. As I tell my students, “The more you know about an exam, the less you have to fear from it.”

Why the Tests Are Changing

The first question to be addressed is why NCEES is changing the PS exam content, which is referred to as the exam blueprint. Every six to eight years, each NCEES exam undergoes a thorough review to determine what changes have occurred in a particular industry (civil, structural, surveying, etc.) since the latest version of the exam blueprint was published. The PS was last updated in April 2013, so the PS exam blueprint was scheduled to be updated between 2019 and 2021.

NCEES leadership pushed for the PS exam blueprint to be updated at the earliest time possible—January 2019—because of the rapid adoption of unmanned aerial systems, laser scanning, and other new technologies by the surveying community.

Revision Process

The process of revising an existing NCEES exam occurs in five phases and typically takes about one and a half years to complete.

First, a team of subject matter experts (SMEs) is assembled by combining the existing exam-development committee with a group of new volunteers. This committee creates a questionnaire to quiz the surveying/engineering community about what types of surveying they perform, what technologies they are currently using to collect measurements and the principles they use to complete their everyday tasks.

Second, this newly created questionnaire is sent to many individual volunteers who are currently practicing, as well as every state society, the National Society of Professional Surveyors, and other stakeholders in the surveying community. The more participants who rate an idea, theory, or concept as “important,” the more likely that concept will be included in the updated exam blueprint. The goal is to define a minimally competent surveyor in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Third, the questionnaire results are reviewed by a second committee of SMEs. This committee transforms the results into a hierarchy of subjects (i.e. geodetic, boundary, topographic) and further subdivides the list into subcategories (boundary: priority of calls, junior/senior rights, accuracy standards). This yields the blueprint that is published for the exam.

Fourth, SMEs who are practicing surveyors are given the blueprint and asked to write questions, answers, and explanations for the relevant concepts. These questions are entered into a pool of potential exam questions and reviewed by other SMEs on the exam development committee.

Fifth, current examinees are given a few of the newly written items, and the results are used to verify that these questions are correct and proper.

The process described above is used for every update of an NCEES computer-based exam question pool, including surveying and engineering exams. Unlike many state-specific surveying exams, NCEES applies a statistical rigor and formal process that are second to none when updating the exams. Therefore, the likelihood of “bad questions” being introduced during an exam update is quite rare.

Content Changes

Let’s consider how the content of the PS exam has changed from the April 2013 version to the updated January 2019 version of the exam. The short answer is: “Not very much at all.” The exam is still seven-hours long, with 100 questions, and closed-book with an electronic reference.

The updated PS exam has the same five subject categories, with somewhat updated sub-categories which account for the biggest change in the updated exam blueprint. But the subcategories within each category are very similar to previous exams.

In the first subject category, Legal Principles, the number of subcategories has shrunk from ten to five. But now, under each subcategory, there are sub-subcategories that fully explain the expectations from each subject. This is a great improvement because specific expectations are set for each subcategory.

Furthermore, the number of questions in the Legal Principles category has been slightly shrunk from 22-33 to 18-27 questions, with the focus shifted from definitions and terms to the careful analysis of what surveyors must do (“how to evaluate data,” “how to search for … physical evidence,” etc.). This is a welcome change.

The second subject category, Professional Survey Practices, tests the applicant on his or her practical surveying knowledge: how to plan surveys, find record documents, conduct field surveys using conventional and GNSS instruments, and apply the necessary theories to complete such surveys.

Again, the number of subcategories has decreased, and the number of sub-subcategories, which clearly explain expectations, has increased. Monument standards, GIS data collection and development practices are welcome additions to the category. The number of questions in this category has not changed.

The third subject category, Standards and Specifications, has been severely reduced, both in terms of the number of questions (from 17-25 to 8-12) and the scope of the category (from nine subcategories to three).

On the old PS exam blueprint, any number of surveying standards could have been tested, including ALTA/NSPS, BLM/PLSS, FEMA, FGDC, and geodetic standards. Concepts about local, state, and federal laws, rules, and regulations were also tested. In the new PS exam blueprint, Standards from 1) the BLM Manual of 2009, 2) ALTA Land Title Standards, and 3) FEMA flood mapping standards are the focus of this subject category.

Some of the topics previously covered were moved to other sections of the exam blueprint. This is probably the most significant change in exam content from the 2013 to the 2019 exam.

The fourth subject category, Business/Professional Practices, has changed very little. Still tested are business concepts, communication (oral and written), and risk management. But each of these subcategories has been more fully explained.

For example, under risk management, the examinee is expected to understand safety procedures, quality control methods, and how much and what type of insurance a surveying business likely needs. The number of questions in this category has been slightly reduced from 17-25 to 13-19 questions.

The fifth and final subject category, Areas of Practice, formerly known as Types of Surveys, has been substantially expanded from 14-21 to 24-36 questions. While the core knowledge areas of topographic, boundary, geodetic, flood mapping, and subdivision have not been expanded, consulting services, a very lucrative and growing market, has been added as a subcategory.

In the old PS exam blueprint, none of the subcategories were explained at all. But now, each of the nine subcategories has complete descriptions of the concepts and theories the examinee is required to know. This deep explanation of each type of survey removes much of the mystery associated with past versions of the PS exam blueprint.

Two things are clear from this discussion on changes. First, the exam has not changed much in terms of the content or material that examinees are required to master before undertaking the final step towards professional licensure.

But, NCEES has become much more open about what exactly surveyors should study, and NCEES has conveyed these areas of knowledge by greatly expanding the number of sub-sub-categories listed within the PS Exam Specifications. Listing specific concepts under each topic allows the examinees to focus on learning important concepts instead of guessing what they might be tested on.

Passing Score

The last topic is what number of correctly answered questions constitutes a “passing score” for either the FS or PS exams. Among university students preparing for the FS exam, this is the question that they always ask me. The simple answer is that “it depends,” because NCEES uses advanced statistical techniques to build a custom, unique exam for every test applicant.

First, during the creation or revision of an exam question pool, each question is calibrated using known statistics. Then, a unique, but statically equivalent, exam is generated for each applicant. If a unique exam is composed of many difficult questions, the applicant is required to get a lower number of questions correct. Conversely, if an applicant is given a relatively “easy” exam, then that applicant must get a higher number of questions correct in order to pass the exam.

This method of determining the number of questions for a passing score uses a methodology known as Item Response Theory (IRT) testing and is also used on all of NCEES’s large computer-based exams. While this method may not feel fulfilling because examinees will never know the exact number of items they must get correct to pass, the IRT system is statistically defensible and creates a more fair, robust exam for all the applicants.

Thank you, Thomas Dodd, Ph.D., PE, of NCEES, the exam-development engineer who oversees the PS exam, for answering my questions for this article.

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