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Author Topic: What percent fail ham tests?  (Read 9110 times)
K0OD
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« on: October 31, 2011, 12:35:12 PM »

I swear I looked in several places for the answer to what must be among the most common of  questions. But I didn't get a whiff of an answer. 

By class, how many ham test takers fail?  Does historical data exist on the subject?
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N2EY
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« Reply #1 on: October 31, 2011, 12:59:19 PM »

I swear I looked in several places for the answer to what must be among the most common of  questions. But I didn't get a whiff of an answer. 

By class, how many ham test takers fail?  Does historical data exist on the subject?

You didn't find it because it doesn't really exist. While VEs may have kept records, I know of no comprehensive data on the subject.

There's even a question of how to count. Say a ham goes to a VE session, takes Tech and fails by one or two questions. Pays another fee, takes Tech and passes on second go. Does that count as a pass or a fail or both?

---

One could also ask "what does it matter?" In the bad old days there was more incentive to pass, because retesting was such a pain. So the ham with any sense would not even try unless really well prepared. Not so much today.

Also, in the bad old days you couldn't even try the Extra until you had 2 years experience. Today you can go from no license to Extra in a single test session. I have often advised hams that since a single VE fee entitles you to one try at each test, they should at least try all of them just for the experience. That probably raises the failure rate, but so what?   

---

Myself, I took the following amateur radio tests:

Four written: Novice, Tech/General, Advanced, Extra. Passed each on the first try.

Four code receiving: 5 wpm, 13 wpm twice, 20 wpm. Passed 13 wpm on second try, all others on first try.

Three code sending: 5 wpm, 13 wpm, 20 wpm. Passed each on the first try.

11 tests, 10 passes.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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KG4RUL
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« Reply #2 on: October 31, 2011, 01:55:50 PM »

Just thinking back over several years of text sessions, I would guess that the Tech and General tests end up with a less than 5% failure rate.  The Extra test maybe 10%.
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K0OD
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« Reply #3 on: October 31, 2011, 02:57:15 PM »

Quote
"Just thinking back over several years of text sessions, I would guess that the Tech and General tests end up with a less than 5% failure rate.  The Extra test maybe 10%."

I'd guess that about half those taking the tests years ago flunked between the theory and code parts.

Hard to believe, Jim, that no stats exist. How does the FCC intelligently fine tune the tests' difficulty? 

A 5% failure rate seems scandalously low compared with similar government exams. A 95% pass rate borders on universal licensing. I presume you're filtering out Tech applicants, for instance, who take a wild stab at General or Extra. I'd sure like to think our hobby hasn't sunk that low. 

Over half the drivers' license applicants fail the first time for example. (Heard last year of one woman who passed her drivers test after >100 attempts!!!) Very common for intelligent kids to flunk several times. And thank goodness allowing people to drive on a highway isn't based entirely on a multiple choice test! I appreciate that operating a modern appliance radio isn't analogous to driving a car. But a test should be a test. 

I'm going to guess your figures are too generous. I hope they are!
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N2EY
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« Reply #4 on: October 31, 2011, 06:31:51 PM »

Hard to believe, Jim, that no stats exist. How does the FCC intelligently fine tune the tests' difficulty? 

A 5% failure rate seems scandalously low compared with similar government exams. A 95% pass rate borders on universal licensing.

I don't know of any hard, reliable stats. The numbers I see are guesses, or reports of VEs who tell what they see. All second- or third-hand, with no scientific basis.

I don't see what the problem is, though. An amateur radio license isn't a commercial permit or an educational certification. It is, and always has been, a license to learn.

I presume you're filtering out Tech applicants, for instance, who take a wild stab at General or Extra. I'd sure like to think our hobby hasn't sunk that low.

I'm not filtering anything. And without hard numbers, we really don't know.  The 5% thing was a guess (not mine) and nothing more.

Over half the drivers' license applicants fail the first time for example. (Heard last year of one woman who passed her drivers test after >100 attempts!!!) Very common for intelligent kids to flunk several times. And thank goodness allowing people to drive on a highway isn't based entirely on a multiple choice test! I appreciate that operating a modern appliance radio isn't analogous to driving a car. But a test should be a test. 

Driving a car is a completely different thing from operating an amateur radio station. Driving is mostly about skill; about being able to do a number of relatively-simple things at the same time. Academic intelligence isn't of much use; what's needed is operational skill and judgement - in real time.

Even the simplest mistakes when driving a car can be fatal - not just to the driver, but to innocent bystanders. In 2010, over 37,000 Americans died on the nation's highways in auto accidents - and it was the lowest total since 1950! I don't know the injury total, but it's far higher. Yet we let teenagers drive.....

Because of this, the practical test to get a driver's license is pretty involved and the examiners look carefully for ANY violation of the rules. One wrong during the driving test and you FAIL.

Amateur radio kills and injures far fewer. Most hams manage to stay within the rules, and those who don't are usually either violating in ways no test would prevent, or are committing relatively harmless minor violations such as IDing every 12 minutes instead of 10.

Sure, there are some hams on the air whose behavior makes you cringe. But take a good hard listen to the bands - all of them, not just 75 phone or 14.313  - and compare to the behavior you see on the road.

IOW, who is more dangerous - the ham being a boor on the bands, or the driver weaving through traffic 25 mph over the limit? The ham who should turn off the rig and sleep off the multiple martinis, or the driver under the influence?

The real criteria for whether a license test is doing its job is how those who pass it behave when doing what the license allows. Percentage who pass isn't important; it's what they do with what they learned that matters.

That's how FCC judges whether the tests are adequate. Note that, in many cases, when a ham is found doing something blatantly against the rules (such as the Technician found on 20 'phone), the FCC brings the ham in for retesting. If the ham doesn't show, the license is gone.

If you look carefully at the old license tests, you'll see a pattern to them. They basically tested hams on three things: basic code skill, regulations, and problem areas in amateur radio technology.

For example, a lot of the old questions were about power supplies, rectifiers and filters. This was so that no ham could claim ignorance of the need for pure DC to run transmitters. High pass, low pass and bandpass filters were another subject - so that no ham could claim ignorance of how to clean up TVI. Crystal tolerances and frequency meter accuracy were another area - so no ham could claim ignorance about being inside the band. Etc.

Meanwhile, subjects like receivers and antennas were almost ignored - because ignorance in those areas simply meant a ham wouldn't make many QSOs.

The modern license tests are somewhat similar. First is regulations, second is basic technology, third is common operating practices. Basic stuff, really, not intended to be all a ham needs to know, just what a ham needs to know to stay out of trouble, and for FCC to say "you are responsible to know this".

BTW, if you think the license exams are too easy, you can fix them. All you have to do is write more questions for the pools and submit them to the QPC.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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KG6AF
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« Reply #5 on: November 01, 2011, 08:33:31 AM »

Here are some guesses (not hard data) based on observations from over 60 VE sessions.

1) The vast majority of candidates pass the element they studied for.  I'd say that, at most, one person in a dozen fails to pass the exam they came to take, across all classes.  I haven't noticed a marked difference among Technician, General, and Extra applicants in this regard.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the pass rates for General and Extra are higher, because the candidates are less likely to be taking the exam on a whim.

2) Virtually all candidates who pass an element and take the next one will fail if they haven't studied for it.  Notable exceptions are EEs and others with a significant electronics background.  (The high fail rate makes me skeptical about the alleged benefits of taking such a test to, as people often put it, "see what it's like," but that's another discussion.)

3) If Technician candidates fail their first attempt by one or two questions, they have a slightly better than even chance of passing a re-test.
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W5ESE
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« Reply #6 on: November 01, 2011, 11:11:23 AM »

I read somewhere (think it was on AC6V) that the passing rate for the Advanced Class exam back when the FCC was administering it was about 30%. Times have certainly changed.
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W5ESE
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« Reply #7 on: November 01, 2011, 12:05:34 PM »

I just remembered; it was in 'The Wayback Machine'.

http://www.twiar.org/aaarchives/WB034.txt

Dick Bash claimed his operation was 100% legal. He said that since the
questions were available via a FOIA request, they weren’t classified and
could be published. He further stated that he was justified in publishing
“The Final Exam” because the syllabus and License Manuals out there did not
adequately prepare applicants for the exams. Indeed, FCC records showed
that the failure rate at some exam sessions was 69%--less than 1 out of 3
passed.
This was before the Volunteer Exam program. FCC exams were given
at the 20 field offices nationwide, and at quarterly, semi-annual, and
annual examination sites. If you failed, it might be 3 months or more
before you could retake the test.

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K0OD
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« Reply #8 on: November 01, 2011, 01:51:44 PM »

I find this quoted several times on the web and always linked to the entrepreneurial Dick Bash:
"Indeed, FCC records showed that the failure rate at some exam sessions was 69%--less than 1 out of 3 passed."

I'm sure at some tiny sessions 100% passed and at others 100% failed. I take that quote to be statistically meaningless advertising puffery, probably from Bash. 
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N2EY
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« Reply #9 on: November 01, 2011, 05:50:57 PM »

Thanks to W5ESE for the link!

Quoting the Wayback:

"Dick Bash claimed his operation was 100% legal. He said that since the
questions were available via a FOIA request, they weren’t classified and
could be published."

If that were really true, he could have submitted an FOIA request and gotten the actual tests. That he did not even try, and instead resorted to subterfuge, shows he knew differently.

"He further stated that he was justified in publishing “The Final Exam” because the syllabus and License Manuals out there did not adequately prepare applicants for the exams."

What he didn't mention is that they weren't supposed to.

The point of the LMs and study guides of those days was to show the general areas of knowledge that would be on the test, not to be comprehensive license-test-preparation manuals.

There's also the fact that a 1981 Bash book cost $20, while for $20 you could buy a 1981 ARRL Handbook, License Manual, and two Q&A manuals covering Tech through Extra.

$20 in 1980 inflates to over $52 today, btw.

"Indeed, FCC records showed
that the failure rate at some exam sessions was 69%--less than 1 out of 3
passed.
"

Some - not all.

"This was before the Volunteer Exam program. FCC exams were given
at the 20 field offices nationwide, and at quarterly, semi-annual, and
annual examination sites. If you failed, it might be 3 months or more
before you could retake the test."

In those days the FCC sent around traveling examiners to hamfests and other gatherings. If a group could guarantee 10 examinees, FCC would send an examiner. This was pretty standard for hamfests over a certain size.

The plain and simple bottom line was that Bash saw an opportunity to make some cash and did so. 1000 books per month at $20 a pop is almost a quarter-million dollars a year gross.

There were folks in the FCC who wanted to prosecute Bash, but they never did. Why, I don't know - I speculate that they weren't sure they'd win. There was probably no clear statement in the rules which precisely prohibited what Bash did.

So they put him out of business by changing the exam method. Not only that, they saved themselves a bucket of money by getting unpaid amateur volunteers to do most of the work - not only conducting the exams, but creating the questions, paperwork, travel, etc.

Pretty slick, really.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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KD8MJR
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« Reply #10 on: November 02, 2011, 03:02:09 PM »

And just to add to some of this, if we had stuck to the "Good Old Days Standard" there would be no Ham Radio today!
The FCC would have allocated out most of the Bandwidth as the remaining few thousand old timers squabbled.
Yaesu, Kenwood and Icom would have ceased making radios by now and no new companies like Steppir or Alpha would exist.
People need to move on and not get stuck in the past.  Ham Radio was a great privilege 40 years ago, but not so much today, it's an old fashion communication system that is kept going by tech enthusiast and nostalgics.
I love Ham radio but I have no illusions about it's ranking and importance in Modern day communications and as such I think the current licensing system reflects the status of the hobby in a very balanced way.

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N2EY
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« Reply #11 on: November 03, 2011, 03:37:03 AM »

And just to add to some of this, if we had stuck to the "Good Old Days Standard" there would be no Ham Radio today!
The FCC would have allocated out most of the Bandwidth as the remaining few thousand old timers squabbled.
Yaesu, Kenwood and Icom would have ceased making radios by now and no new companies like Steppir or Alpha would exist.

How do you know?

Under the old system we had growth, new technologies, and bandwidth. In fact, one of the periods of greatest growth was the 1970s, when the license requirements were probably the most complex.

73 de Jim, N2EY


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K0OD
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« Reply #12 on: November 03, 2011, 04:39:50 AM »

Much of the growth in the 70s was from CBers upgrading. So for many a radio hobbyist there was no entry test. A main driver was popular culture including TV and music. For example, "Convoy" was number one on the country AND pop charts in 1975.

Plus many of the ham kids of the 50s/60s returned to the hobby, having left during college. Brushing up on Morse and theory was easy for them.   
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N2EY
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« Reply #13 on: November 03, 2011, 05:38:47 AM »

Much of the growth in the 70s was from CBers upgrading. So for many a radio hobbyist there was no entry test. A main driver was popular culture including TV and music. For example, "Convoy" was number one on the country AND pop charts in 1975.

That was cb, not ham radio. A cb setup could be had for a small amount of money and could be installed in almost any vehicle. It was a fad that came and went.

Ham radio back then required a code test and a theory test. To use the most popular VHF/UHF bands (where the repeaters were) required a Technician, which back then had 5 wpm code and the same written as General.

cb to ham radio was a big step. And our growth continued long after the 1970s.

Plus many of the ham kids of the 50s/60s returned to the hobby, having left during college. Brushing up on Morse and theory was easy for them.   

Maybe. But why would a ham leave during college? I sure didn't.

Renewing was just a Form 610. College is 4 years, the license term was 5 years.

I would say that the counterculture, Vietnam and many other factors slowed the growth in the 1960s. Ham radio was "square" - how many hams went to Woodstock?

Here's some data put it in perspective.

The following numbers have been posted by W5ESE on QRZ.com and elsewhere:
 
Year    US Population     #Hams  Hams as % of US Population
1913     97,225,000      2,000   0.002%
1914     99,111,000      5,000   0.005%
1916   101,961,000      6,000   0.006%
1921   108,538,000    10,809   0.010%
1922   110,049,000    14,179   0.013%
1930   123,202,624    19,000   0.015%
1940   132,164,569    56,000   0.042%
1950   151,325,798    87,000   0.057%
1960   179,323,175  230,000   0.128%
1970   203,211,926  263,918   0.130%
1980   226,545,805  393,353   0.174%
1990   248,709,873  502,677   0.202%
1997   267,783,607  678,733   0.253%
2000   281,421,906  682,240   0.242%
2005   296,410,404  662,600   0.224%
2006   299,291,772  657,814   0.220%
2008   303,000,000  658,648   0.217%
2010   310,425,814  694,313   0.224%

The 2010 figures are for October 7, 2010.

Some significant-to-US-ham-radio historical events:

1912: Mandatory licensing of all US radio amateurs
1917: US amateur radio shut down because of WW1
1919: US amateur radio reopened after WW1
1920s: Radio broadcasting boom; amateurs pioneer use of short-waves, transition from spark to tube transmitters
1929: New regulations require higher quality transmitters and drastically narrow US ham bands. Stock market crashes, radio boom ends.
1930s: Great Depression
1941: US amateur radio shut down because of WW2
1945: US amateur radio reopened after WW2
1951: Restructuring doubles number of US license classes, Novice, Technician and Extra created
1957: Sputnik launched, space age begins.
1958: 27 MHz cb authorized
1960s: SSB replaces AM as most-popular voice mode on HF amateur bands
1968-69: Incentive licensing rules enacted
1970s: Novice becomes renewable, experience requirement for Extra eliminated. Repeater boom era.
1984: VEC system replaces FCC office testing. CSCEs created.
1990: Medical waivers for 13 and 20 wpm code tests
1991: Technician loses its code test completely
2000: Restructuring closes off 3 license classes and reduces test requirements for other 3.
2007: Code testing completely eliminated for US amateur licenses.

There are many more events; add your own. Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, hippies, yuppies, etc.

Note how the growth has varied with time, both in percentages and totals. Oddly enough, the period of most-rapid-growth in terms of percentage was the 1930s, when the number of US hams almost tripled, despite the Great Depression.

The 1950s were high-growth time, in part because of the Novice license (started in 1951). This growth is even more remarkable when you consider that the population growth of the 1950s was mostly in the form of the baby boom.

The 1960s saw very slow growth, but were followed by the faster growth of the 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s. The 1970s are particularly interesting because they were a time when the economy was terrible and the full effects of incentive licensing (imposed 1968-1969) were most felt. Yet we had tremendous growth then, and onwards to the mid-1990s.

Since 1997 we've seen ups and downs, and we're still behind where we were in 1997 in terms of hams as a percentage of the population. But the numbers are catching up.

Of course the numbers of licensees only tell part of the story. They don't tell how many licensees are active amateurs, in the form of having a station and getting on the air. They don't tell how many hams use a particular band or mode, or how much they operate, work on projects, etc.

FCC doesn't have age data on all licensees so it's impossible to accurately determine the mean or median age of US amateurs. (When you see "average age" figures tossed around, ask how they were derived.)

The license term went to 10 years in 1984, which means there were no expirations at all from 1989 to 1994, and that a ham can drop out yet be carried on the license totals for almost a decade.

There are lots of other factors - housing, economics, sources of population growth (immigration vs. babies), increasing lifespans, cell phones, the internet, and much more.

I became a ham in 1967, and for 43 years I've heard predictions of doom and gloom for amateur radio. They said incentive licensing would kill it, cb would kill it, Japanese rigs would kill it, PCs, cell phones and internet would kill it, etc. Yet Amateur Radio is still here.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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N2EY
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« Reply #14 on: November 03, 2011, 10:22:46 AM »

Thanks for the analysis. Looks like another big jump in licenses occurred during the 50s, thanks to the space age and the focus on science, not to mention a big improvement in economic life for most individuals.

Yes and no.

Americans didn't get really fired up about "space" and "science" until Sputnik, which happened in late 1957. The boom started right after WW2.

I think there were several factors:

1) A number of GIs were exposed to 2 way radio in the military, and getting an amateur license when they got back to civilian life was a natural.

2) As you mention, postwar prosperity meant more folks living in their own homes, with at least some disposable income. War bonds, FHA/VA mortgages and the GI Bill meant upward mobility for millions.

3) There was lots of WW2 surplus around, and also the cost of electronics dropped due to techniques developed during the war.

4) SWBC, the Cold War, Civil Defense and similar public-service focus activities were a natural link to amateur radio.

5) The average American didn't have many other alternatives for electronic communication. Telegrams were costly and formal, and anyone who went through WW2 with a relative in the service dreaded the Western Union man. The telephone was even more costly once you got out of the immediate calling area. CB was on UHF until 1958. And except for UHF cb, none of them were mobile.

If a person was interested in low-cost long-distance 2-way electronic communications, what option did s/he have besides amateur radio back then?

I would guess the number of inactive licenses really took off after 1991 or so. Many people had wives and children get licenses once the code test was dropped, but most of these family members never get on the air. I know quite a few locally like that.

There were actually two changes: First, in 1987 the old Tech/General written was split into two parts, with both required for General and only one required for Tech. This made the Tech easier to get. Then in 1991 the FCC finally got their way and created a nocodetest license out of the Tech.

Around here we had a lot of family hams as you describe. Often they did it to use the local repeaters for personal comms. Nothing wrong with that and we got some great hams that way but when cell phones became cheap and ubiquitous a considerable number went inactive. With a 10 year license term and 2 year grace period it takes a long time for an inactive ham to leave the database.

Another factor IMHO is the "get the license first" emphasis found in many places. I've known many hams who got their licenses without any ham gear, antennas, etc. - and very little in the way of practical radio know-how. Not their fault; just different than it used to be.

  Also, around here many jobs today require people to get a tech license, but they also never get on the air.  I guess that was one of the good effects of dropping the code test-people don't value a ham license at all now.

FCC had been pushing for a nocodetest amateur license since at least 1975. They were turned back at least twice but by 1990 they just did what they wanted to do.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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