The Air Force doesn’t just want to know how well you memorize information. It’s becoming more interested in how you make decisions under pressure.
The service said Wednesday it will add questions on an airman’s situational judgment to the Weighted Airman Promotion System, the test used to vet enlisted airmen for promotion to staff sergeant (E-5) and technical sergeant (E-6), starting in 2022.
Rather than the current system that gives airmen 100 typical test questions, the exam will include 60 questions to assess their knowledge and 20 brief scenarios to vet their decision-making skills. Each of the 80 questions will be worth 1.25 points for a total of 100.
The new section was developed with the help of behavioral scientists and Air Force senior enlisted leaders.
“For each [situational judgment] question on the [Promotion Fitness Exam], examinees will read the description of a situation relevant to their potential rank and duties, examine four possible responses to the situation, and then select the most effective and the least effective response,” the Air Force said in a release.
Master Sgt. Jarad Denton, a spokesperson for Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, offered an example of what airmen can expect to see:
“You have told your staff sergeant to not let subordinates go home early without permission from you first. Later that day, one of your subordinates shows you a forwarded email from the staff sergeant to others telling you it ‘was not his fault’ but yours that they can no longer go home early. Responses to the initial email showed that the unit was divided over the issue.
A: Reply to the email chain with an explanation of the reason for the policy.
B: Reply to the email chain advising that questions about the policy should be addressed to you directly.
C: Meet with the staff sergeant to discuss the email. Explain to him the reason for the policy. Then require him to send out a revised email to subordinates explaining the reason for policy.
D: Meet with the staff sergeant and subordinates as a group to brief them on the policy and reasoning behind it.”
There’s no study guide for good judgment, the Air Force said, but airmen can consider leadership qualities like communication and accountability when picking their answers.
The Air Force previously said the 2022 E-5 promotion cycle would tentatively hold tests in May and June, then announce those selected in August that year. The E-6 cycle would hold its tests in February and March, with selectees announced in July 2022.
“This is another critical step in our talent management transformation, moving us away from using strictly knowledge-based questions while providing more agility in the way we measure the competency level and leadership abilities of our airmen,” Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said in the release.
Military personnel experts have tossed around the idea for years. A 2014 report by the think tank Rand argued that asking technical sergeants seeking promotion to master sergeant how they would tackle situations that they hadn’t yet faced on the job was “particularly promising.”
“The response options, which reflect effective and ineffective solutions, could be based on how master sergeants have attempted to handle these types of problems in the past,” the think tank said. “In doing so, they would increase the test’s ability to predict candidates’ performance and should increase candidates’ acceptance of the test as a fair and useful assessment of leadership potential.”
Situational judgment questions in 2015 became part of the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, an exam taken by those looking to join the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and Officer Training School as well as the pilot, combat systems officer and air battle manager fields.
Another Air Force report on the topic in 2019 suggested a requirement that personnel explain their thought process on each question of the judgment test so there is a better understanding of their logic in a subjective situation.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.