The test is scored precisely, down to decimals.
Yet results can be rounded.
A grade may be set to define passing and failing.
But not necessarily.
Earning the highest score could mean a promotion.
Members of the Stamford Board of Representatives said this week they are confused about how firefighters and police officers are evaluated on exams they take when they want a promotion.
During the board’s Personnel Committee meeting, representatives requested an explanation of the rules after a firefighter was promoted March 28 to deputy fire marshal even though he scored 19 points lower than the runner-up.
Representatives had a lot of questions for city Human Resources Director Al Cava. City Rep. Terry Adams asked how the exam could be given without establishing a pass-fail point.
“Isn’t it the normal process that a score of 70 and above is passing?” Adams asked.
Yes – and no, Cava said.
“You can determine a cut-off score but you have to be able to defend it,” Cava said. “The days of having 70 or 65 be the passing grade are over. In the employment world, that’s not acceptable any longer.”
But, Adams said, “you know going in that if you get a certain score, you pass … the way it is, people think they passed, and then they didn’t pass.”
It’s because of lawsuits, Cava said.
“You have to justify why someone who scored 70 is qualified for the job and someone who scored 69 is not. What is your basis for using 70? That’s what the courts would ask,” Cava said. “It’s a very complex process to determine a cut-off score that will withstand judicial review.”
Lawsuits filed against municipalities by civil servants who question why they weren’t chosen for promotions are common, Cava said.
“There tends to be a lot of litigation around exams; it can be very expensive,” he told the board. “So we want to make sure we do it properly and we avoid litigation.”
So, Adams concluded, the city is testing “based on the way litigation comes out, rather than coming up with a concrete test.”
In 2015, the city threw out the written exam for entry-level firefighters, saying it discriminated against minority and female job candidates and stymied efforts to diversify the department.
The city hired a well-regarded testing consultant, Morris & McDaniel, to come up with impartial exams and scoring procedures based on analysis of the knowledge, skills, abilities and training needed to perform the jobs.
Now candidates for promotion take a written test and, if they pass, go on to meet with assessment panels that present them with different scenarios. Candidates must explain to the panelists how they would handle each scenario.
The assessments are considered to be opportunities for job candidates to demonstrate their breadth of experience, leadership skills, and knowledge of department guidelines.
The written and assessment portions of the exam are given different weights depending on the job, and h0w they are negotiated with the fire and police unions, Cava said. In some cases Morris & McDaniel calculates an appropriate passing grade for the written exam, he said. Civil service rules apply, too, Cava said.
Morris & McDaniel may create “bands” of scores that fall within a certain range, Cava said. Candidates are hired mostly from the first band, which includes the highest scores, but those who are promoted aren’t necessarily those who did the best on the test.
But the real problem, critics say, is that promotion decisions don’t end with Morris & McDaniel’s calculations.
There’s a final step, outlined in the city Charter. The Fire Commission – a panel of appointed volunteers – decides promotions with recommendations from the fire chief.
On March 28, commission members interviewed, for 15 minutes each, the two firefighters seeking the deputy fire marshal promotion. Members then deliberated in closed session for about 35 minutes, and went back into public session to vote 4-1 to promote the firefighter who scored 55 on the exam instead of the one who scored 74.
The decision was “based on the rules and the independent judgment of each of the commissioners,” Cava said.
It means the impartial calculations of the testing consultant go out the window, said Brian Whitbread, one of four firefighters who sued the city for failing to promote them based on their exam scores.
“What is the point of hiring an expensive testing company to come up with these objective measures, and then leave it all to a subjective interview?” Whitbread said.
According to the most recently available contract award information, the city paid Morris & McDaniel more than $628,000 between 2016 and 2019.
Whitbread and the other firefighters are suing over a 2017 exam for lieutenant or captain promotions. According to the suit, Morris & McDaniel computed their scores out to two decimals but city officials ignored them.
Instead officials rounded the scores to the nearest whole number to allow multiple candidates to advance to the interview phase, rather than just those who scored highest. That gave officials discretion to choose from among a larger pool of candidates.
“When city officials have an interest in reaching someone down the list, they bypass the objective test results and rely on a very subjective interview process to reach their goal,” Whitbread said.
Director of Legal Affairs Doug Dalena did not respond to a question about the legal cost of defending the city in the firefighters’ lawsuit, now in its fourth year. The suit is expected to go to trial early next year.
Firefighters think the carefully crafted test scores identify worthy job candidates.
Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association President Paul Anderson said the union represents everyone involved in the issue, “but we do not support banding in the promotional process. We support merit-based promotions.”
Fire Commissioner Geoff Alswanger had no comment.