NOAA Chart of the Gulf of Mexico

NOAA Chart of the Gulf of Mexico

3rd Mate Exam Pass Rates Plummet

John Konrad
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April 2, 2023

The Consortium of State Maritime Academies, which represents the nation’s six state maritime academies, has asked Commandant of the US Coast Guard Linda Fagan to review the current Chart Plot module of the U.S. Coast Guard Third Mate exams. The request comes after the majority of cadets taking the exam failed a test required for them to become Merchant Marine officers. The Consortium also questioned the need for a paper exams during the age of digital charts.

Approximately 70% of the nation’s unlimited tonnage/horsepower merchant marine officers are graduates of state maritime academies. Earning their merchant marine officer’s license is a requirement for graduation, as stated in federal law. The Chart Plot module is one of seven within the Third Mate exam cycle, which maritime students prepare for throughout their four-year education.

Historically, cadets have passed the Chart Plot module at an acceptable rate and served the U.S. Merchant Marine with a high level of competency. However, following the introduction of new exams in 2021, passing rates have dropped dramatically. Recent results from five state maritime academies show passing rates as low as 0% at Maine Maritime Academy and only 19% at California State University Maritime Academy.

This trend is especially troubling in the context of the current mariner shortage.

In response to the initial decline in passing rates, the academies requested a review of the exams in March 2022, leading to revisions in the past two months. However, the Consortium claims problems within the module persist.

While the Consortium does not have access to the actual exam questions, reports from cadets and other students indicate that recent changes in the structure and wording of the questions have made the exams more difficult, resulting in lower passing rates. The new exams seem to differ significantly from those administered as recently as 2018.

The Consortium is also concerned about the growing emphasis on the Chart Plot module, as many cadets will sail on vessels without paper charts, and newer ships are required to be fitted with the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS).

One notable structural change in the exams is the linkage between multiple questions, making a correct answer to one question dependent on having answered a previous question correctly. The Consortium does not believe this approach is necessary or fair.

Lawyers representing the academies requested that the exam be modified to address these issues, specifically suggesting that questions should not be linked, should assess a singular task, and should have standardized wording across all chart plots.

The Consortium has urged for the immediate formation of a new review team to address the problems within the chart plot exam module.

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