The AICP Exam and 2002 Results
By Paul Farmer, AICP
Executive Director, APA and AICP
For more than 20 years, the American Institute of Certified Planners has been certifying planners through a process that includes education and practice requirements, as well as a written examination. Employers are showing their confidence in the "AICP" credentials by increasingly requiring certification or otherwise giving special consideration to those who are certified. Planners are showing their interest by taking the exam in numbers that are regularly in the 1,000-1,500 range. AICP membership, which has been growing at approximately 1,000 per year, now stands at about 13,300. Of course, the purpose of certification is both to assist planners in their practice of sound, ethical planning and to assure the public that planners with such credentials have the expected expertise and that that expertise will be utilized in accordance with our code of ethics.
This year, the Institute experienced a lower pass rate for its certifying exam than it had experienced in recent years, which understandably resulted in a number of concerns expressed by both unsuccessful examinees and chapter Professional Development Officers. However, it should also be noted that this year's pass rate was more in keeping with the rates of many of the first 20 years of the exam than with the higher rates of the last half dozen years. From 1980 through 1992, the range had been from a low of 50 percent to a high of 63 percent, a rate that was achieved only once. In eight of the last nine years, the range had been 71-76 percent. Only in 1999, with an all-time high pass rate of 79 percent, was it outside that range.
Several phenomena may explain why this year's pass rate dropped back to rates more common during the first 13 years of the written exam. None explains the entire change.
For example, pass rates vary widely according to such factors as an applicant's years of experience or degree program (planning versus a related degree; an accredited planning degree versus a non-accredited degree). For an entire applicant pool, these vary from year to year.
In 1999, the AICP Commission commissioned a study of the certifying process. The Commission selected James Spencer, FAICP, a member of the University of Tennessee faculty, to perform the study. Dr. Spencer had completed a similar study approximately 15 years earlier. The Spencer Report suggested a number of procedural and substantive changes to the exam process. One of the recurring themes that Dr. Spencer identified in his report was a strong desire by AICP members for the certifying exam to be more oriented to testing the application of planning knowledge and experience and a reduced emphasis on rote memorization of facts and figures. Since the report's publication in 2000, the exam committee of AICP has been slowly and deliberately shifting the focus of the exam to testing the application of planning knowledge and experience.
The change in focus of the exam became evident to the exam committee members who certified the exam for administration in 2002. Many of the exam committee members remarked that the draft exam seemed to be calling for more decision making on the part of examinees than did previous exams. The exam is beginning to meet the desire of AICP members as expressed through the Spencer Report: to have an exam that is testing the application of planning knowledge and experience. This continued shift of emphasis in the exam may also have contributed to a lower overall pass rate.
Standardized exams require a periodic process to establish a "cut score," which establishes the number of questions that need to be successfully answered to pass the exam. The cut score is reviewed approximately every five to seven years; 2002 happened to be one of those years. The Select AICP Exam Cut-Score Committee that was convened in late May for this purpose consisted of recent exam takers, those who had taken the exam years before, a member of the last cut score committee, members of the exam committee, and current and former PDOs. A representative of the Chauncey Group, the professional administrators of the AICP certifying exam, led this effort. Most of the committee's time over two days was spent on two tasks. The first task was to develop a profile of an exam candidate who would marginally pass the exam. The second task was to evaluate questions from the 2002 exam and collectively agree on how well this marginal candidate would perform on each question. Using these data, the Chauncey Group developed a draft cut score for my review and certification as the AICP Executive Director.
After reviewing the recommendations of the Committee, I had further conversations with staff of the Chauncey Group and with the Chair of the Committee. I certified a cut score that raised the pass rate slightly from that initially recommended by the Committee. Although the change between the cut score from the past several years to this year was slight, it apparently has contributed to a lowering of the pass rate in 2002. However, the change in the cut score does not entirely explain the total change in the pass rate experienced this year. But, as with the background of the 2002 applicant pool and the implementation of the Spencer Report, it isn't the sole reason for lowered pass rate in 2002.
We should all be careful about relying on previous pass rates as a predictor of the pass rate in any given year. An applicant understandably asks for the history of pass rates. A rate is frequently stated in exam preparation courses. In fact, it is not uncommon for faculty of such courses to state the pass rates of "their graduates."
Another expectation relates directly to the preparation courses and materials. Too many exam takers assume that the practice exams provided as part of the review sessions offered by state chapters and private individuals somehow replicate what is on the actual exam. Those who conduct the review sessions emphasize that the practice exams are just that. But a number of applicants who called the chair of the exam committee expressed amazement that the questions on the practice exam(s) were not on the certifying exam. Practice exams should never be viewed as a shortcut to completely studying the exam subjects.
AICP certifies planners. It has an interest in having every practicing planner become certified and be a member of the Institute. It is not the intent of the AICP Commission or its Exam Committee to artificially raise or artificially lower the pass rate for the certifying exam. But an exam score must be set that numerically identifies those that qualify for membership in the Institute. We hope that the exam itself will be viewed as simply a part of a valuable learning process for those who seek to become certified planners. We will work with APA's Chapters so that continuing education programs can continue to be improved so that planners build on their knowledge and skills through the focused learning processes leading up to the exam. Those who become certified will then have both the satisfaction of earning their "AICP" credentials and the satisfaction that their knowledge and skills have improved through the process.