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NCARB Sabotaging the ARE with Errors, Omissions & Quiet Corrections

It has been awhile since I have attacked my favorite moving target, NCARB, partly because I have been very busy trying to beat NCARB at their own game, and also in part because I have been very busy at work. I have taken what will hopefully be my last ARE, and during this whole process I have run into many obstacles, which is nothing new for ARE candidates attempting to complete this ridiculous process of graduating from intern architect to licensed architect. The reason that I refer to the process as ridiculous is for reasons different than many of my peers. I agree that it is silly that one has to know what riprap is (something I saw on a practice exam somewhere) in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public, but the best thing to do is accept it, learn it and hope that you know enough silliness to pass all of the AREs. I am not even going to touch on the topic of health, safety and welfare as it is related to the ARE, that will be left for a later post, but what I will touch on is the notion that the process of becoming an architect is ridiculous, and you may be surprised when you hear the reasons why.

Reason #1:

It seems to me that NCARB needs to improve certain quality control measures to ensure that the correct information is being given to candidates. I have mentioned the following on the ARE forum before, but it is worth noting again, because it will help to build an argument that illustrates NCARB’s incompetence and a trend for publishing material with errors or omissions, and then quietly correcting it without addressing the issue and its affect on ARE candidates. First, let me tell you how I discovered the error, and how NCARB reacted. Like many ARE 3.1 candidates I downloaded the ARE Reverse Transition Chart pictured in Figure 1.1. I downloaded the chart the first day it came out, printed it, posted it on my desktop and crossed out each test that I successfully passed. I successfully passed my first eight exams, and failed my last exam, upon failing my last exam I proceeded to download all of the information from NCARB and review it again, even though I was certain I had the information memorized. Upon downloading the new transition chart, see Figure 1.2, I noticed a significant difference! Site Planning and Building Planning can be passed and ARE 3.1 candidates earn equal credit in the ARE 4.0 version of the exam. This is great news because candidates can now pass two exams independently of any other exam and receive equal credit under the new format, according to the revised transition chart.

Upon discovering this conflicting information I proceeded to call NCARB. I actually telephone transferred my way up the NCARB corporate ladder, I was very polite and sincere, and received the same from NCARB, until a point. Once the transferring stopped, and I arrived at my final destination, I proceeded to explain to the NCARB employee that the transition chart that I downloaded in May of 2008 has different information than the chart from February of 2009. She/he (again I would prefer not to name names, but can if NCARB forces my hand) began to get very confrontational. I simply wanted to know which chart was correct, and if the new one was correct, why did NCARB not announce the correction and why did it take almost a year for such a vital mistake to be corrected? After awhile she said that if I had proof of a mistake to scan it in and email it to her. I did, and I did not hear anything regarding the incident again, until. . . I opened up an issue of Direct Connection: A Publication of NCARB and noticed that an errata was issued on page 31. The best part of the errata is that they “… apologize for this error” in reference to an incorrect quote attribution, but NCARB avoids apologizing for the ARE Transition Correction. Another item that is interesting to note as it is also featured on the same page of the errata is that NCARB just completed a brand new office which earned LEED Silver certification according to the Commercial Interiors system. They whine because they are poor, they build a new facility, they raise the exam fees because they need money, and then state that the money the exams raise only covers a portion of their cost, then why raise them and pass the cost to intern architects who are already feeling the brunt of the recession.

Why is this such a huge mistake? This mistake would have affected ARE 3.1 candidates’ strategy for test taking, and most likely affected the outcome of many ARE candidates’ ARE experience. I, like nearly all 3.1 candidates, had a specific strategy based on the way that the tests transition. An obvious strategy before this transition would be to take Building Planning first because that is an even trade. Some people may have focused on Pre-Design and Site Planning because those are two-for-two. Others may have taken Building Tech after Building Planning in order to give themselves multiple chances at passing this beast. For those of you that started on 4.0 this type of strategy does not apply because time is not an issue, but with the transition in place, test taking strategy is very important because you want as many chances at low-lying fruit as possible. Hopefully the importance of strategy for test taking order in 3.1 has been made clear to the 4.0 candidates and the severity of such a mistake is crystal. The ARE Reverse Transition Chart affected the way that people tested and their strategy for taking the exams, and undoubtedly affected their experience. If I had this information in May of 2008, it would have changed the way I took my exams, and the outcome (number of times I could have taken a certain exam due to the transition date).

Figure 1.1: Incorrect ARE Reverse Transition Chart which was posted on NCARB’s website for a year before it was quietly corrected.

Figure 1.2: The quietly corrected ARE Reverse Transition Chart which was posted on NCARB’s website February 3rd, 2009. Upon correction NCARB employees let out a sigh of relief, because they were able to quietly correct the issue without conflict.

Reason #2:

There are many items in the Site Design Vignette that are open to interpretation by ARE candidates. The exam is fairly straightforward at first glance, but upon closer inspection, candidates will realize that many of the requirements are open to interpretation. Unfortunately NCARB is not helping matters by supplying contradictory information. Please see Figure 2.1 & 2.2 pictured below.

Figure 2.1: Incorrect ARE 4.0 Site Planning & Design vignette solution. Note that NCARB calls out the coordination of Pedestrian Plaza as acceptable.

Figure 2.2: Quietly corrected ARE 4.0 Site Planning & Design vignette solution. Note that NCARB calls out the coordination of Pedestrian Plaza as acceptable, but this condition is different than the previous condition.

What can we assume from the above illustration? The first thing that I am going to assume is that the new vignette solution for the ARE 4.0 Site Planning & Design, which can be downloaded from NCARB’s website, has been corrected. I am also going to assume that not even NCARB fully understands what the white box is that denotes the front entrance. The last thing that I am going to assume is that the way in which the plaza connects to the white box in front of the entry affects exam grading, how can I assume this? Why would NCARB go through the effort to make such a change, unless they found a glitch in the NCARB matrix and are now attempting to quietly correct it. There are other minor differences, but this difference is a clear contradiction of what was there before.

If this is a mistake, and is one that affects grading and thus exam results, then NCARB needs to review previous Site Planning vignettes to verify that this did not cause any candidate to fail. The next item that NCARB needs to address is what in the world is the white box at the entry denoting, and how should it be treated? Is it an overhang? Is it part of the building pad? Who knows? Does NCARB really know? If they don’t know what it is, then just tell us how to treat it so that ARE candidates can move on with their lives. The graphic vignettes are fairly straightforward, what is not, are the rules. There are other things that bother me about the graphic vignettes. What does close mean? What does near mean? What does far mean? Why define proximity in feet for some restraints, like handicap stalls must be within a 150ft circle, but near the road, wtf? What does the computer grading this exam think that these adverbs really mean? These are questions that don’t have anything to do with  protecting the health, safety or welfare of the general public, but rather test your understanding of the SOFTWARE AND HOW THE SOFTWARE GRADES YOUR SOLUTION! This should not prevent someone from becoming an architect. I know that conifers and buildings block wind, and that deciduous trees shade and allow views to the street, but what are the criteria that the computer is using to determine what any first grader knows.

Reason #3:

A very reliable source has informed me of the most egregious of offenses by NCARB and Prometric. In New York City, ARE 4.0 candidates taking the ARE 4.0 Site Planning & Design exam experienced a curse in disguise. When they sat down to take the exam, the solution lay before them, candidates need only trace the solution as it appears on the background of the vignette and voila, an easy exam pass, or so it seemed. Some of the candidates reported the glitch and NCARB immediately investigated the glitch, and have not released a statement about the event. What I do know is that this is another examples of a glitch in the NCARB matrix, and yet another reason why NCARB needs an appellate process that works. See my article *The Importance Of The Asterisk, if you think that one already exist. If you are not familiar with the process, then you will find out that it is a joke that is both funny and sad.

A Ridiculous Conclusion

It appears that this game will not end anytime soon, NCARB is here to stay, and I suggest that we learn the rules to the game and try to beat it. That is what I have done my whole life, and partly why I love being an intern ARCHITECT, because my job as a designer consists of learning the rules and constraints and trying to manipulate them to achieve the desired results. I hate losing, and love to win, so if the rules are in place I’ll do whatever it takes to beat the game, but what is so ridiculous about this game (the ARE) is that NCARB is consistently changing the rules. The only way to give integrity back to the system is for NCARB to come clean about certain vignette requirements, and to develop a grading report that can serve to give us a set of checks and balances to verify results. NCARB must also eliminate such vague adverbs as near, far and close. Remember in high school when you would take a Scantron exam and find that four or five correct answers were marked wrong by the computer, well this is a lot more complicated than that, so why should we trust that they are getting it right. There have been several instances where NCARB has stated that results were delayed due to various grading problems. Give ARE candidates an opportunity to see what it is that caused them to fail on the graphic vignettes or an appellate process that works. A system needs to be put in place that allows candidates to review their exams in order to check for discrepancies.

I am not calling for a complete removal of the exam process, I think that we need the ARE, because there are many people (some of them that I went to school with) that should not have graduated school with a degree in architecture, and should not be allowed to practice architecture. They were allowed to slip through the cracks, and given a degree, because they bought one, and the ARE should be the final barricade that prevents those people from practicing. What I am calling for is an examination of a process that is not clear, and at times contradictory. Please submit contradictions and supporting information below. If you are as concerned as I am about these issues, please submit an email to: AREOperations, or Contact NCARB through the form on their website.

Thank you for your support, and good luck with your AREs.