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Experts bust 5 advancement exam myths

Mar. 1, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A good exam score could be even more important for sailors trying to make E-4. Here, a sailor takes the third class petty officer advancement test aboard the carrier Carl Vinson in September.
A good exam score could be even more important for sailors trying to make E-4. Here, a sailor takes the third class petty officer advancement test aboard the carrier Carl Vinson in September. (MC3 George M. Bell/Navy)
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Sailors love scuttlebutt, and at just about every command, ashore and at sea, it ferries myths around the passageways about everything from Navy regs to the ship’s schedule. Advancement exams are no different.

These myths can hamper your preparation. The test counts, and there are no trick questions. And in the future, a strong test score will mean even more to those hoping to make E-4. Knowing the ins and outs of the test is key.

“We think that sailors should be aware of two things about the exam, the purpose of the exam and the design of the exam,” said Tom Updike, a retired master chief who runs exam development and analysis at the Navy Advancement Center.

Updike spoke to Navy Times a few weeks before the Spring 2014 advancement cycle to discuss ground truths and dispell rumors so you’re armed with the best info.

Here are five common misconceptions that the Navy’s experts say can hold you back on the test:

Misconception: The test is about passing.

Reality: It’s about getting a higher score than the next guy.

The tests are designed to measure your knowledge, and the results are used to rank you against everyone else. Only 3 percent of test-takers fail, so the real challenge is scoring high enough to make the cut.

“We take the number of questions answered correctly for each sailor in each paygrade and we distribute those scores on a scale,” Updike said. That leads to the creation of a standard score, which ranges from 20 to 80.

If your standard score was 50, you answered more questions correctly than half the test-takers.

“If you score an 80, that only means you scored more questions right than anyone else — that does not mean you aced” all of the exam questions, Updike said, to dispel another misconception.

Misconception: The test is less important for sailors with great evals.

Reality: The test becomes a tiebreaker in ratings with small quotas.

“If you have 100 people eligible for advancement [in a given rating and paygrade], but there’s only quotas for 10, chances are that all of those 10 are [early promote] sailors,” and so everyone’s scores are equal, explained Updike. In this case, he continued, “it’s the test that must differentiate who advances, though awards and education points help.”

When a rating is wide open, evals do play a bigger role. But your test score is still important, Updike cautioned.

Misconception: Some questions aren’t based on the references.

Reality: Test-preparers ensure every one comes from the source material.

There may be some stumpers in there, but all questions — 150 occupational and 24 on professional military knowledge — are based on the publications, officials stress.

Fleet experts write and approve all questions and verify that each one stems from a Navy publication, said Patty Gibson, who heads exam development at the Navy Advancement Center.

“It’s absolutely required that every question on a Navy advancement exam be sourced to a valid reference — it may not read word-for-word from the reference, but the content is reflected in that,” Gibson said.

The experts also decide the topics covered by the exam and how many questions are devoted to each topic, based on their importance to the rating.

Misconception: Some out-of-date questions are designed to be curveballs.

Reality: No tricks, just a result of long lead time.

The exams are designed by visiting rating experts — E-7 and above — who come to the center on temporary duty for a couple weeks each year. They remove obsolete questions and write new ones.

But the process of printing and mailing tests to the fleet can take up to year — that means by the time you take the tests, some questions may address obsolete systems.

Officials say these questions are rare — and not intentional.

“We have a very dedicated group of team leaders who monitor the changes in equipment and procedures and documentation in the fleet,” Gibson said.“We really work hard to keep our exams as up to date and accurate as possible.”

In the end, the panels produce seven exams total — enough for a complete year’s set of cycles. Two each for E-4 through E-6 exams and one E-7.

Misconception: Shore duty sailors do better because they have more time to study.

Reality: Dead wrong.

Sailors on sea duty tend to score better, even though the test does not factor in whether a sailor is at sea or ashore.

Over three recent cycles during which the Navy tracked such data, sea duty sailors make E-4 20 percent more often than their shore duty peers. Similarly, E-5 advancements skew 11 percent toward sea duty sailors and 7 percent for E-6.

“We are a sea going military service, so most of our exams are going to be reflective of the work being done out on the deck plates,” Updike said. ■

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