The Fundamentals of Engineering Exam is evolving by adapting to the new technology while maintaining its place as a necessary step in the licensure process.
The FE exam was offered in 1965, and since then, the exam has been the second step towards engineering licensure after an accredited agreement. It is still the only exam in the United States that tests candidates' knowledge and skills acquired during the engineering programs.
Through the years, the exam went through many changes to keep up with the curriculum, better serve the industry, and, most importantly, to develop the testing practices. In 2014, the FE exam was switched to computer-based testing (CBT). This transition gave the test-takers more flexibility, lessened cheating, and made the exam packets more secure. The content of PE has also been adjusted to make the discipline-specific FEs more related to the curriculum.
A Sequence of Changes
If you passed the FE exam before 1996, you sat for the same exam as everyone else. However, later that year, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) added a part to the test related to the disciplines: mechanical, civil, electrical, chemical, industrial, or general. In 2002, they included Environmental engineering as well.
The morning of the exam was for testing general engineering knowledge, like ethics or math. The afternoon focused on specific knowledge for each discipline.
According to the NCEES chief operating officer and a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers, the FE focused on students in the senior year of engineering school. Therefore, it was natural to test them on something they will encounter throughout their study career.
Since the exam is national, institutions use the exam results to evaluate their programs and understand its strengths and weaknesses, mainly for the ABET accreditation that is carried out by four commissions that accredit university programs in specific fields like engineering. The shift to discipline-specific exams gave institutions more insight into their programs' content past than what they taught in freshman and sophomore years. This move was made intentionally to serve two purposes.
The last version of a pencil-and-paper FE included 180 questions and took 8 hours. It was done twice a year, and the results took 6-8 weeks.
The Shift to a Computer-Based Exam
In the 1990s, the NCEES's task force started discussing the transition to a CBT. However, it was essential to gain a deeper awareness of engineering licensure before bringing about any significant changes to the exam.
The NCEES talked to the students about the licensure and how FE is an ABET assessment tool. At the same time, the organization started making questions that would suit the shift to a computer-based exam. From 2007 to 2013, the number of people who sat for the FE exam went from 48,000 to 56,000.
At the 2010 annual meeting, NCEES decided to transition fully to a CBT, and 80 members of the council volunteered to convert the exam.
The transaction went through a process that included :
- Coining the exam specifications for all disciplines is more aligned with the industry needs and academic practice.
- Reviewing 40,000 questions to see if they are suitable for the new specifications.
- Take out questions or add others if needed to ensure that their difficulty is moderate.
- Change the reference manual, so it suits the new changes.
- Find a CBT service provider (Pearson VUE) and use it to check the reliability of the exams.
The transition was a multi-steps prolonged process that required a lot of effort and time from the NCEES.
Changes in the Content of the Exam
Every 5-7 years, the NCEES carries out a content review for the FE. They base it on the faculty's expectations of what students will learn in school and what they need to know before graduating.
In 2011, the NCEES conducted the last survey, which brought some significant changes to the computer-based exam. They decided that it's better to remove the morning section of the exam that contained the general common knowledge among engineers. This knowledge wasn't enough to construct a separate section. Instead, they merged that knowledge, such as calculus and ethics into all discipline exams.
NCEES also decided to remove specifics that were no longer taught. For example, thermodynamics was no longer part of the electrical and industrial exams. The exam simply became a more precise reflection of the curriculum. The new CBT format allowed test-takers to focus more on the core areas of knowledge instead of studying for subjects that were irrelevant to their discipline.
Not only that, but the NCEES also reduced the number of questions from 180 to 110, 100 of them counted for scoring. The exam duration went from 8 hours, plus lunchtime and orientation to 6 hours, including the exam, the tutorial, and the break. This shift also allowed the exam to happen more frequently. Today, the FE is given two months on and a month off.
Impact on the NCEES and the Examinees
The shift to a CBT resolved many security issues that the NCEES long suffered from. Shipping the exam papers to all the sites was time-consuming, stressful, and less secure. If anything unfortunate happened to the booklets during the shipment, they had to decide whether to toss them out. Writing new questions for the exams is quite expensive, as the organization has to pay for the volunteers' food and lodgment.
Moving to CBT also ensured uniformity among the examinees. The testing conditions became the same for everyone.
Thanks to the flexibility the FE has now, test-takers don't have to wait another six months if something occurred on the exam date. They can also get the results now within ten days only.
The move to CBT was the most positive change in the history of the NCEES, and especially that the pass rates have not changed with the shift.
Drawbacks and Difficulties
There has been one major pitfall to the CBT exam, which is the significant reduction in the number of test-takers. This issue is due to the procrastination effect. Examinees tend to keep pushing the test off. The organization has been expecting this drop, and they believe that the number of examinees will rise again.
However, the NCEES, along with the engineering societies, need to increase the awareness around the value of the FE and the licensure to help increase the number of examinees again.
Another disadvantage of CBT is the increased costs of the exam, which went from $125 to $225. Additionally, with the computer-based exam, it's hard to come up with an FE review course for all the examinees because of the different disciplines.
Still, the fundamentals of engineering exam haven't entirely changed. It is only natural that the content and the format will keep evolving to be better aligned with what is taught in schools and what's happening in the industry. However, the shift to a computer-based exam opened up more possibilities for the organization that could ease up the process of getting licensed.