Should FAA test questions be published for the public, so students and instructors know what to expect? That's how it used to be, back when many of us learned to fly, but now a proposal to return to that system from today's lockbox method is under debate. To publish the questions would encourage students to simply memorize the answers, some say. But to not publish them means some students will face questions they're not prepared for, and bad questions can creep into the data set without any feedback or review.
A deeper question is whether the tests really do what they are meant to do, in any case. Will a student who scores 100 percent on the test be a better pilot than one who scores a 75? Does the preparation required to pass the test really help to enhance real-world performance? The GA safety record has stalled, and the number of accidents is higher than it should be. The hope is that revising the testing system could help to ensure that pilot applicants better understand real-world operations and risk management.
These are all worthy discussions, and I'm glad the rulemaking committee is undertaking this analysis, which is not an easy task. But do students really learn about real-world operations and sound decision-making from studying for a written test? Or do they learn from practice and training, and from the people they interact with in the aviation world? Maybe we don't need better tests so much as we need better instruction and better role models.
In my experience, the best learning takes place when a student's goals are clear, and they have a knowledgeable instructor committed to help them reach those personal goals, whether it's to fly for business, or for a career, or for fun. Ideally, the two should sit down and map out a learning plan that will ensure the student can perform the skills and exercise the judgement required to achieve those personal goals, plus meet the minimum skills needed for their certificate, and then demonstrate those achievements via practical tests and oral exams.
That leaves a large body of knowledge that pilots are expected to absorb, from weather processes to taxiway markings, that has traditionally been enforced by the written test. The FAA multiple-choice testing regime, even if it gets an overhaul and upgrade, still seems like last-century technology to me. But what is the better way to do it, that's practical and effective? Maybe by the dawn of the next century, we'll have figured that out.