My last article at MBJ

[A post I wrote May 20, 2013, but never got around to publishing, for whatever reason. I just read for the first time in nearly two years. Very interesting for me to hear my voice in the words on the screen.]

…at least for the next three years.

Took a while to sort this whole story out. Basically, the public isn’t allowed to know what is on the written test for a driver’s permit, so driving school instructors build their curriculum based on feedback from students that have already gone in to take the test. When the test is changed, which is often, almost everyone fails for a while, until the schools are able to get enough feedback to adjust their curriculum.

Here below is the story in its entirety. A slightly different version was published in the May 20, 2013 issue of the Journal.

Change to permit test leads to lower passing rate

In October 2012, new material was added to the written test for the learner’s permit for the Guam driver’s license.

The motor vehicles division at the Department of Revenue and Taxation publishes a handbook intended to provide applicants with the material necessary to prepare for the test and all applicants are required to complete a 40 hour driver’s education course before enrolling for the test. But when the new questions were introduced, Rev and Tax did not update the handbook and the island’s driving schools were not informed of the changes.

“When I added the new questions, the pass rate plummeted,” said Cathleen Moore-Linn, director of the department of professional and international programs at the University of Guam, which manages testing on behalf of Rev and Tax.

Moore-Linn told the Journal that her department does not make public the test questions or samples. She said that for guidance in preparing for the test, license applicants should use the Guam Driver’s Handbook issued by Rev and Tax. “Every one of the questions has to relate back to the test booklet,” she said.

But, the new test questions drew on legislation enacted in 2012, and, according to Maria C. Flores, coordinator of the motor vehicles division at Rev and Tax, the handbook was last updated in June 2011. “We are not able to keep up with the changes,” she said. “Financially it would not be practical…We rely on the driving schools to stay abreast of any changes to the test.”

Several driving school instructors the Journal spoke with said that in preparing their teaching materials for the new questions, they have had to rely on feedback from applicants who have gone in to take the test. “The only reason I found out about the changes is because a lot of students started failing [the test],” said one driving school instructor that asked to remain anonymous.

Gov. Edward B. Calvo signed P.L. 31-194 – restricting the use of cell phones while driving – on February 28, 2012, P.L. 31-208 – enabling the court to require a person to complete a defensive driving course if convicted of reckless driving – on May 9, 2012 and P.L. 31-216 – requiring a person to complete a course in driver safety if he/she is involved in three accidents in a twelve month period – on June 15, 2012.

According to Moore-Linn, Rev and Tax then directed her department to incorporate into the permit test questions reflecting the three new laws. Moore-Linn said she personally wrote and prepared all the new questions. The questions were introduced beginning with the Oct. 5, 2012 test.

With the introduction of the new test questions, the number of people passing the test decreased by 90%, according to documents provided to the Journal. In 2012, but prior to the introduction of the new questions, an average of 150 people passed the biweekly test. For the Oct. 5, 2012 test, 16 people passed, out of 248 tested.

According to email records provided to the Journal, on Oct. 8, 2012 Moore-Linn notified Rev and Tax of the passing rate of the Oct. 5, 2012 test. “Please make sure,” Moore-Linn said in an email to Flores, “the study booklets that are circulated include information on the new questions.”

Flores said Oct. 11, 2012, “We’ll [instead] contact the driving schools to update their curriculum to include information on the three new laws.”

For the Oct. 19, 2012 test, 30 people passed, out of 270 tested.

Moore-Linn again notified Rev and Tax. “We need to do a media release,” Moore-Linn said in an email to Flores, “to let people know to come and get a new study guide from DMV so they can review the new material.”

Finally, on October 26, 2012, Rev and Tax issued a release to the driving schools informing them of the new questions, according to an email from Flores to Moore-Linn.

The following month, in November 2012, the passing rate for the written test was 33%, with 277 license applicants passing out of 844 tested, according to John P. Camacho, director of Rev and Tax. That is compared to November 2011, when the passing rate for the written test was 64%, with 246 passing out of 383 tested.

“I personally aim for a 50% passing rate,” Moore-Linn told the Journal. “I haven’t benchmarked against other DMVs,” she said. “But that’s not a bad idea.”

“Sometimes people take [the test] twice and then they pass,” Moore-Linn said. “One woman took the test several times. She came in with her husband and was so happy she finally passed that she hugged me.”

Moore-Linn told the Journal test takers were also struggling with the clarity and phrasing of questions.

“We had some issues with certain words on the test,” she said. “[For example] people have problems with the word unlawful, but they know what illegal means.”

“It was [also] a question of readability,” she said. “And the [grade] level at which the questions were written. When there is a comma or the sentence is too long, it is more difficult for the test takers to comprehend.”

Moore-Linn was not able to provide the Journal with copies of any test questions but several driving school instructors told the Journal the phrasing of certain questions appeared to be copied verbatim from title 16 of the Guam Code Annotated. “They put the section number and all,” said one instructor. “I thought to myself, this language is meant for lawyers and judges, not teenagers.”

To improve the readability of the test questions, Moore-Linn recruited the help of Sharleen J. Q. Santos-Bamba, composition director at the department of English and applied linguistics at the University of Guam. “We have now made sure we have brought the test down to a sixth grade level,” Moore-Linn said. “That did help… we have seen that more people are passing.”

In April, the passing rate was 44%, with 234 students passing out of 530 tested, according to Moore-Linn.

“The driving schools should now be up to date,” Flores told the Journal. But, “changes to the test can happen two to three times a year,” she said.

“The driving schools start to learn which questions are on the test,” Moore-Linn said. “So every once in a while we have to change it… If we get up to 80% [passing], we know it’s time to change the test.”