BVARC Transitions VE Team to In-Person Computer Based Testing.

The Brazos Valley Amateur Radio Club (BVARC) VE Team has been consistently conducting licensing exam sessions since February 23rd, 1985. This was shortly after the FCC stopped administering exams (on creation of the VEC program) in November 1984.

The Brazos Valley Amateur Radio Club (BVARC) VE Team has been consistently conducting licensing exam sessions since February 23rd, 1985. This was shortly after the FCC stopped administering exams (on creation of the VEC program) in November 1984.

taking the amateur radio tests
Applicant’s at the monthly BVARC test session, in the midst of their tests.
VEs K5GOL and K5LJ looking over applicant’s testing progress on the ExamTools platform. VE AK5G is present in the background.



Background Prompting the Transition

In early 2020, as a result of the pandemic lock downs, many VE teams across the U.S. did not conduct exams, in an abundance of caution for the public and vulnerable VE’s. The demand for license testing created the need for alternatives, like remotely administered exams. See: http://www.arrl.org/news/remotely-administered-amateur-exam-systems-showing-promise .

The local venue that BVARC used for it’s in-person monthly exam sessions was closed for 3 months in 2020. Fortunately, the venue reopened in June of 2020 (with distancing and masking protocols). BVARC was one of the earliest VE teams to re-establish in-person testing (with paper). The applicant volume for these sessions, for several months, was very high, until other local VE teams re-established their testing schedules and applicants dispersed to sessions closer to their QTH.

As many VE team liaisons can attest, the paperwork for each candidate, and each test session, is voluminous. There are the session reports, 605 applications, license and FRN verifications, the answer sheets and Certificates of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE). Once a 2 hour test session is complete, another hour or so of processing is needed, by the VE liaison, consisting of scanning, session & fee reconciliation, and uploads to ARRL-VEC.

We’d been monitoring the remotely administered testing efforts during the lock down. The resulting adoption by the ARRL-VEC, of the ExamTools online testing implementation was our cue to seriously consider how our VE team might utilize this platform. Our considerations for online in-person testing ncluded:

  1. Administering tests to multiple candidates in the same two hour session. Many VEs are only able to dedicate a couple hours a month.
  2. Securing the applicant’s testing environment, so that they are observed during the testing. A room with few or no distractions, and secure so there is no opportunity to “Google” the answers.
  3. Tests that are unique to each applicant and answer checking that is error free (no plastic templates).
  4. No paper.
  5. Post-session processing that reduces the time (no, or minimal, manual scanning) to produce the files for upload to the ARRL-VEC team.

The ExamTools platform (kudos to Richard Bateman KD7BBC of SignalStuff and his team) has been developed with all our considerations in mind. Although sanctioned for remote online use, the platform is also developed for in-person sessions.

The Transition Inception, Training and Hardware Configuration Goes Smoothly

We began our transition to in-person computer-based testing by obtaining approval from the ARRL-VEC for on-line testing. The ARRL FAQ for ARRL Team Liaisons is one of the required readings, prior to transitioning: https://docs.exam.tools/docs/arrl The next step was to provide the ARRL-VEC approval to the ExamTools administrators, so that we could then obtain VE liaison privileges to form a team and schedule exam sessions.

Before going live, we needed to acquaint our VE team with the ExamTools platform and practice. We provided VEs with links to YouTube videos that describe the platform: https://docs/exam/tools/docs/ve/vetrainingvideos/ Although these videos are geared towards remote online exams, most of the content is still applicable for an in-person testing regime.

Another sample review of a test session is also here (though note, it is not an ARRL-VEC affiliate): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS9x2L0QQrg we found this instructional review very helpful.

Next, our VEs needed to register onto both of the ExamTools environments. This requires that the VE upload a scan of their license, separately for both sites. For the VE’s ARRL verification, ExamTools links to the ARRL online session count webpage listings. As mentioned, there are two ExamTools environments, the live one is ExamTools.ORG, while the practice sandbox is ExamTools.DEV. For our VE team to practice, we scheduled several online teleconferences. In these practice sessions (on the Examtools.DEV site), we emulated the typical test session processes that are within the online platform: VE login, applicant registration, session creation, adding (fictitious) applicants and VEs, reviewing 605 forms, opening sessions, test completion, final reviews, signatures, CSCE emailing, etc. A sidenote, when completing a fictitious applicant’s test, entering the equal sign “=” fills in the correct answer (this doesn’t happen on the live site, obviously). Our VEs identified (from these practice sessions) the need for a test session script, such that next steps for each candidate can be anticipated. The ExamTools platform does provide for a consistent path for each candidate, from login to final signatures.

The computers used for testing the candidates are, specifically, Chromebooks. Each is logged into a Chrome account that has parental controls on web browsing. The only site the user can navigate to and within is the ExamTools.org website, and nowhere else. In our case we were able to procure 15, nearly mint condition Chromebooks (at a very low price), from a school district selling them on a popular auction website. VEs generally use their own laptops, though we’d procured a couple old laptops and refurbrished them for VE use. More than one VE login can be active on one laptop, if sharing is necessary.

Our last VE practice session, before going live, was at our regular testing venue. We verified that all the hardware would tie into the local wifi network. We thought we were set for our first live session.

First Live Session

Between the time we’d had our onsite practice run and our first session, the venue’s IT dept. no longer allowed Chromebook use. We were unable to connect into the venue wifi with a Chromebook account. After the initial panic, we were able to quickly factory reset the chromebooks to use guest access, and were able to log into the wifi, as a temporary fix.

There were a dozen candidates at our first live CBT session. One candidate presented a Technician CSCE (which we validated as delayed for processing on the FCC-ULS site), she’d requested to take a General upgrade exam. Another candidate presented proof of an expired General license, for which we processed a General credit. For both cases, the ExamTools platform had accommodations for these uncommon situations. Our protocol includes that we email successful candidates their CSCE and confirm receipt before they leave the session.

Second Live Session

At our second live session we bypassed the local wifi, and utilized a 5G MiFi M2000 gateway (which has a 30 device capacity). The 5G gateway performed quite well, with about 12 connected devices at the session. This session proceeded very smoothly and we’d considered our overall transition complete and sucessful.

Post Session Processing

Post-session processing of the candidate forms, tests and CSCEs is available from ExamTools as a printout to PDF. A session summary is part of this overall report, which conforms to the session data required by the ARRL-VEC. A pdf editor (like PDF XChange Editor) is required to add in the interactive ARRL VEC Test Session Report Form and manually scanned payments by check. This PDF and a JSON output files are uploaded directly to the ARRL-VEC by the VE liaison. In many cases these are processed and updated to the FCC-ULS, within a day(!), by the ARRL-VEC team. The collected fees (checks) are sent to ARRL via USPS. When the FCC-ULS site is updated with new ham callsigns from the session, ExamTools sends an automated email to the VE Liaison of the candidate’s assigned call.

Session scheduling

We’ve posted our upcoming testing schedule on both ExamTools.org (which is published on Hamstudy.org) as well as on the ARRL “Find an Exam” site. We’ve found it most helpful to send a link of our scheduled test sessions to inquiring candidates, for them to pre-register on the hamstudy.org website.

Mark Janzer – K5MGJ – has been BVARC’s ARRL VE Team liaison since March of 2019. The BVARC VE team of 16, ARRL-VEC accredited volunteer examiners, conduct exam sessions on a monthly (or as needed) basis.

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