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Developing New Specifications for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam

By David L. Whitman, Ph.D., P.E.

The first step in the process to becoming licensed as a Professional Engineer is passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.  The National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (NCEES) provides detailed specifications for the FE exam taker and for the institutions that utilize this examination as part of their accreditation assessment plan.  However, the specifications will change in January 2014 in concert with NCEES’s plans to move the FE exam from paper and pencil to computer-based testing (CBT).  The process by which the new specifications were developed is described below.


NCEES FE Exam Standard-Setting Study Looking for Volunteers

NCEES is seeking volunteers who are licensed professional engineers or engineer interns to participate in an important standard-setting study for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.

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The process is known as a content review and is very similar to the professional activities and knowledge study (PAKS) process used to develop the specifications for the NCEES Principles and Practice (PE) exams. In general, the NCEES Exam Development Procedures Manual specifies that a content review be conducted, at a minimum, every six to eight years.  This guideline allows the FE exam to maintain its consistency with the important topic areas being taught in the various engineering programs around the U.S.

Development of the new FE exam specifications began in the spring of 2011 and was guided by a stakeholder group that included representatives from NCEES exam committees, NCEES task forces, academic personnel whose institutions use the FE exam for assessment purposes and members of state licensing boards.

The stakeholder group first decided on the exam format.  The current FE exam (specifications that went into effect in October 2005) fits a breadth and depth format.  That is, there is a common breadth portion that all exam takers complete and then seven depth modules for various technical disciplines.  Since, and even before 2005, engineering curricula across the nation have shown less uniformity in “core” engineering curricula.  This loss of “core” affects the exam’s relevance to professional licensure, examinees’ perspectives on their ability to do well on the exam and institutions’ perspectives on the usefulness of the exam for outcomes assessment if institutions do not teach some of the topic areas included in the exam. 

The stakeholder group decided to develop the FE content review survey as seven freestanding discipline-specific exams in the areas of chemical, civil, electrical and computer, environmental, industrial, mechanical, and other disciplines.  The other disciplines exam is envisioned to provide an equitable exam for candidates who are not majoring in the six specific disciplines mentioned; it is not envisioned as an alternative exam for students from those six disciplines.  While there was no separate “breadth” module in the survey, relevant core content was included on each exam’s survey.

A draft FE content review survey for each discipline was developed by NCEES, utilizing the current FE exam specifications. In August 2011, a survey creation meeting was held with 59 volunteer participants, including 33 people representing 20 different technical societies.  The group exhibited diversity in terms of NCEES zone, employer type, engineering discipline and other demographics.  The primary goal of this meeting was to edit the draft surveys developed by NCEES so that they contained the subjects in each discipline that had consensus support. Pilot surveys were distributed and reviewed in September and October 2011.  Where necessary, modifications were made to the surveys either for ease of reading or changes in the exam subject areas.

The survey went live in late October through 12 December 2011. In an effort to collect broad survey results, the survey was distributed to technical society members, institution report recipients, deans and department heads of all EAC/ABET-accredited programs, PE and FE exam committee volunteers, and others.  NCEES announced the survey via its website and press releases.  Those who received an invitation to participate were encouraged to forward the survey to other engineers. More than 7,000 responses were received.

Pearson VUE (the company that will be providing support to NCEES for the CBT FE exam including, but not limited to, psychometric services and access to its secure testing centers that exist in more than 165 countries) analyzed the results and prepared preliminary exam specifications for each exam.

Specification meetings (via webinars moderated by Pearson VUE) were held for each exam module between 17-27 January 2012. Seventy-three volunteers participated, including 42 people representing 24 different technical societies.  Again, the group exhibited diversity in terms of NCEES zone, employer type, engineering discipline and other demographics.  These meetings resulted in final exam specifications for the seven exams.

The FE exam committee presented the exam specifications to the NCEES Examinations for Professional Engineers (EPE) Committee.  The committee approved the specifications for the following seven individual exams:

  • FE Chemical

  • FE Civil

  • FE Electrical and Computer

  • FE Environmental

  • FE Industrial

  • FE Mechanical

  • FE Other Disciplines

While these exams will contain some overlapping content (e.g., mathematics and engineering economics), there will be no common breadth portion.

In an effort to avoid confusion between the new and current specifications, the exam specifications for the seven FE exams listed above will be released sometime in 2013.  This should provide adequate time for candidates to prepare for the CBT exams that will begin after January 2014.

In summary, the creation of exam specifications focuses on developing and administering a content survey and analyzing the survey’s results.  This is a detailed process in which each step contains adequate checks and balances to make sure that the resulting exams are both (a) fair to the candidates based on the coursework that they take in their engineering curriculum and (b) provide the state licensing boards with an adequate measure of each candidate’s minimum competency to begin the licensure process.



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David L. Whitman, Ph.D., P.E., is chair of IEEE-USA's Licensure and Registration Committee and served as 2010 President of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).


Copyright © 2012 IEEE

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