Scrutinizing the Scrutinizers: Airport Screeners Dislike Pass-Fail Tests

Airport screeners say they are subjected to a battery of inconsistent, ambiguous tests that drive down morale. Photo: Jim West,

Mention the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and most people think of heavy-handed security, mistreatment of passengers, and violations of civil rights.

But few know the inner workings of the TSA. So the public’s justified scrutiny and sometimes-justified ire is heaped onto the shoulders of TSA underlings—the officers we all encounter at the airport.

President George W. Bush created the TSA in 2001 and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) a year later. Unlike other federal employees, TSA officers were kept off the General Schedule (GS) pay scale and excluded from collective bargaining rights.

After years of clamoring for fair assessments, collective bargaining rights, and to be put on the GS pay scale, TSA officers did win some concessions from President Barack Obama’s appointee, TSA Administrator John Pistole.

The concessions came with restrictions. Officers won collective bargaining rights but not the ability to negotiate how TSA officers are assessed—this is considered a security issue and therefore falls under “management rights.” Nor can they bargain wages—these are set by Congress, and pay starts low, at around $12 an hour. As in other federal agencies, TSA is an open shop, meaning officers choose to join or not join.

Barrage of Tests

According to the Aviation & Transportation Security Act, TSA officers must be “assessed” yearly. TSA upper bureaucrats have decided this means a constant barrage of testing. Currently TSA officers are subjected to three separate tests to ensure competence. It often takes nearly half a year to assess each officer.

The consequence for failing any one of these tests is termination. Two of the three have been highly criticized by TSA officers: a practical skills examination (PSE) and a quiz called the Screening Operations Procedures Assessment (SOPA). The third test is an X-ray imaging test called the Image Mastery Assessment.

The PSE is a hands-on demonstration of various procedures officers do at airport checkpoints, like pat-downs and bag checks. Officers are in a room with two management-appointed testers and must demonstrate proficiency and commit no so-called “critical errors.” A critical error results in a failure.

The controversy among TSA officers is that if an officer claims to have done a complete procedure but the management-assigned tester says he did not, the tester’s word is taken. Calls to have the examination videotaped to allow an “instant replay” have been road-blocked.

The SOPA is a 30-or-more-question, multiple-choice quiz. It is controversial among TSA officers because many questions are ambiguous, making it tricky to identify the best answer, and because some questions don’t seem relevant to security in the first place.

Federal law prohibits citing an example, since the test questions are labeled Sensitive Security Information. But imagine a police officer being quizzed: How many officers can pursue a suspect? Imagine the police officer‘s rulebook being so sloppily written that in one section one answer is given but another section with a different scenario gives a different answer. What is the officer to mark as a reply?

Checkpoint TSA officers get one quiz; baggage TSA officers another; “dual function” officers get more questions. Missing a percentage of answers means failure.

The X-ray imaging test is less controversial. At many airports, officers are allowed to practice on TSA software to prepare. (While there is equivalent preparation for the PSE, none exists for the SOPA.) However, the preparation software is to the actual X-ray test as a Dr. Seuss book is to a John Steinbeck novel. And the difficulty of the tests seems only to increase.

Again, failure to identify a percentage of images correctly is a failure. This seems like a reasonable consequence for TSA officers hired to screen passengers and baggage, but I am reminded of my college biology course. The professor made it clear from day one that this biology course was for liberal arts and fine arts students, not for aspiring doctors. It was to meet a university requirement and to give us a good foundation in science. If this same professor had given us as a final exam his tests from his pre-med course, we would have largely failed.

Does the TSA want liberal arts students or pre-meds? The hiring, training, and tests need to conform to clear standards.


Another source of frustration and confusion is the sometimes wide disconnect between what is detailed in the TSA Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and what officers are actually directed to do at local airports.

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An officer can answer a question according to what she has been directed to do at a local airport, but this answer will be scored incorrect if it doesn’t conform with the SOP.

TSA bureaucrats say the agency is legally obliged to implement these tests, but in truth, assessment could mean simply monitoring officers’ performance in the course of their duties. The agency has chosen to implement pass/fail testing—jeopardizing some officers’ employment and lowering everyone’s morale.

According to Office of Personnel Management surveys, Homeland Security has one of the lowest morale ratings in the federal service.

TSA officers dismissed for failing any of these examinations are told they may re-apply in several months—after losing their seniority and pay status. If this were a serious offer, it alone would bear scrutiny.

The union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), is of little help on testing. While testing is considered a management issue and a statutory mandate, it is open to interpretation. Further, TSA officers are not especially inspired to join a union if their jobs may last no more than a year, until the next tests. They are not inspired to believe in a union that won’t speak to the months of anxiety felt during the administration of these tests.

It’s like living in the times of the Plague. You don’t know who’s going to be walked out next.

The contract signed last year did unlink testing from bonuses, but the new pay system criteria are still being negotiated.

AFGE could file for an injunction to have the tests suspended pending an external review. AFGE could appeal to the White House for an executive order demanding temporary suspension of that part of the statute, pending review.

When a few union reps were asked what they were doing for us, their response was that AFGE got us an increase in our clothing allowance.

Wide Hiring Net

Who are these TSA officers?

With the possible exception of Federal Security Directors assigned to each airport, TSA has not made a point of hiring people with experience in security. The net it casts is pretty broad: kids right out of high school, young veterans after service in the military, some people near retirement, some at retirement, and lately some second- and third-career former professionals who were downsized in one of our frequent recessions.

Since officers’ pay is kept low by excluding TSA from the GS pay scale, and new TSA officers often start out part-time, TSA seems to have taken a page from the retail industry.

But we are all people looking for stable careers and to perform a critical service. We are not seeking to be seasonal laborers picked up and disposed of.

Which begs basic questions about the testing protocols. If the TSA were really that concerned with competence, wouldn’t it recruit former law enforcement officers, explosives experts, and military police, and pay them commensurate to their skills—rather than hire young high-school graduates and then submit them to a battery of tests?

Lowell B. Denny is a six-year TSA officer, now working at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.