BrokersÕ exam gets an F

BrokersÕ exam gets an F

In an article on the high failure rate for the recent customs brokers exam ("Sorry, you failed," JoC Week, June 17-23, Page 38), a number of comments were made that I found disturbing. George Weise, former commissioner of Customs, said that brokers rarely complain that the test is too difficult. Why should they? The harder the test, the fewer the competitors. He also said that the test must be a true test of broker qualifications. If so, why isn't the test given periodically to all license holders? Considering the continual changes in the import laws and regulations, are brokers who were licensed five or 10 years ago still qualified?

But the most jarring comment made by those interviewed was that the test was difficult because it was completely new. This is simply untrue. I analyzed the April 2002 test, as I have analyzed every test since 1985, and I found that 46 of the 80 questions on the test were based on past test questions. It is important to recognize this fact because the belief that the low pass rate was due to new questions masks the real reason for the low pass rate, which was that it contained a number of errors, was poorly written, deceptive, ambiguous and time-consuming.

The first question on the test illustrates the real problem with the test. The question asked: "By regulation, which ONE of the following entries shall be liquidated?" This question had been asked on seven previous tests and it should have been relatively easy to answer. If it was difficult, it was not because it was new, but because the customs regulations that candidates used to answer the April test questions contained two versions of the regulations dealing with the subject matter of this question: Those effective on April 1, 2001, in which vessel-repair entries were liquidated, and those effective on April 25, 2001, in which vessel-repair entries were not liquidated.

The official answer was based on the regulations in effect on April 25, 2001, when vessel repair entries were no longer liquidated. But Customs blundered because its instructions on the test required candidates to refer only to the regulations revised as of April 15, 2000. This error caused question No. 1 to have two correct answers: (C) Vessel repair entry, and (D) Informal entry.

The low pass rate was also due to the length of the test. It contained more than 8,000 words. Of the past nine tests, there were more than 8,000 words on only two, that of April 2002, with 8,010 words and a pass rate of 3 percent, and that of October 1998, with 8,392 words and a pass rate of 10 percent.

Another reason for the low pass rate is that some of the official answers were incorrect. For example, on question No. 18, not a new question, the official answer was that sponges packaged in boxes for retail sale were not exempt from country-of-origin marking. That is not correct. The sponges are exempt: It is the boxes in which the sponges are packed that are not exempt because they must be marked with the country of origin of the sponges. As has happened too often in the past, the examiners, in their effort to mislead, fell into their own trap.

On a number of questions Customs failed to give the candidates the information needed to arrive at the official answer. For example, to answer question No. 35 correctly, one needed to know whether or not the combs were dress combs. Customs failed to provide that information, simply describing the goods as combs but classifying them as jewelry, which is the provision for dress combs.

The test, following the trend in the last few years, had, at 31 percent, an unduly large number of classification questions. Such a large number of classification questions puts an unjustifiable time pressure on the candidates, unrelated to a realistic measure of their competence in classification.

If Customs is to continue administering the test, the agency should improve the test's quality. Customs could begin by establishing standards that can serve as the basis for making up test questions. Customs should also train its officers to write questions that are clear and provide candidates with all the information needed to answer questions correctly. Finally, Customs should base its questions only on regulations that have been in effect for a reasonable amount of time before the examination.

However, Customs is an enforcement agency that is better equipped to protect our borders than to administer the broker test. The best hope for improving the quality of the test is to give responsibility for its preparation to the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America, which should make it part of a continuing-education program that includes periodic testing of all licensed brokers.

Joseph P. Moss is a Rockville, Md., consultant whose firm

trains candidates for the customs brokers' licensing examination. He may be contacted at (240) 631-9821, or via e-mail at