Going Direct: ACS—Why New FAA Testing Standards Are A Mixed Blessing For Pilots

The ACS standards that are now in effect for both knowledge and practical testing are, in theory, a great advance for the aviation community. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

It’s not easy for me to admit that there’s a downside to the change. For many years, I’ve loudly complained to anyone who would listen—including in person to five sitting FAA administrators—that the knowledge tests that the FAA administered were a waste of everyone’s time and effort, that they represented antiquated thinking (the cross-country computation questions required a level of accuracy that was beyond the capability of an E6B) and technology (think lots of ADF questions), and that they were clearly designed with numerous impossible-to-answer questions inserted solely to get test takers to miss items. The reason for this is transparent to anyone versed in education theory. A valid testing instrument has a bell curve of scores, reflecting that there are easy, medium and hard questions on the test. Instead of writing good tests, the FAA created a test designed to mimic the results of a good test. Pilot applicants were the ones who have suffered for more than 40 years now.

The result of the FAA’s knowledge test scam was the test prep industry, which rose up to help pilots “study” for the tests, in some cases by simply memorizing the answers. I did this on every one of my knowledge tests, and got very high scores. Years ago, I completed my CFI and Fundamentals of Instruction written tests with perfect scores at lightning speed not because I was intimately familiar with the tragically outdated and flat-out wrong educational theory in the tests, but because I memorized the answers, using products from King Schools.

Did I feel guilty about it? Not at all. If the test had been a good one, even a decent one, I would have. But the tests were scams, and in my book, there’s nothing wrong with scamming a scammer right back. Take that, FAA.

Moreover, it’s not fair to say that I didn’t learn anything in the process. I spent lots of time with the inimitable King Schools’ founders and on-air talent John and Martha King, and learned much in the process. And test prep offerings from other companies, including, most notably, Sporty’s, focus on the stuff that a pilot really needs to know in addition to providing the answers to the test. And, on top of that, I spent a lot of extra time learning the real stuff that pilots need to know in the first place, which I think is almost universally true for those of us who fly. We learn it because our safety and the safety of our families and friends is on the line.

Times have officially changed. With the ACS, the test answers, once in the public domain, are now back behind closed doors, and pilots everywhere will have to study actual aviation theory and practice in order to get passing grades on the tests. This is, of course, a great thing. We all want the tests to be accurate indicators of an applicant’s knowledge and not their ability to memorize answers. Even better is the fact that the ACS standards are fair and valuable ones, based on real-world flying concerns, skills and judgments. It’s about time.

It means, however, that we pilots have got to put time and energy into learning the real stuff. I’d argue that the vast majority of us were already doing that. So, it all feels right.

That said, the ACS is new, and there are bound to be some rough spots and growing pains. But the corrupt testing system that the FAA long employed—against which I’ve been railing for two decades—has been fixed, thanks to the hard work of many in the aviation education industry, including at the FAA, who listened to my arguments (with which many of them privately agreed), then went to work spending years creating solutions.

Congratulations, and thanks to them all for the hard work on a worthy cause.

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