Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Test Issues

The Fundamentals of Engineering test (FE Test) is a six-hour test given by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) that is meant to be the first step in becoming a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.). It is a computer-based exam that consists of 110 questions and is administered at designated test centers around the country. Engineers who pass the FE Test can, depending on their state, be officially recognized as Engineers in Training.

In many states passing the FE Test is a prerequisite to taking the Professional Engineer test and receiving a PE license. A PE license can provide a significant boost to the career of an engineer. While each state has its own rules and regulations regarding the licensing of engineers, in many states, only an engineer who has earned and maintained an active PE license can sign, seal, and submit engineering plans to public authorities or officially add their seal to engineering work for public and private clients. It is also often a state requirement that engineers who are responsible for certain types of engineering-related work be licensed as Professional Engineers or work under the supervision of someone who is. As a result, in many areas of engineering, an engineer who is a licensed PE is significantly more in demand than an engineer who is not.

The FE Test is the first step to this important certification. It may be taken by recent engineering graduates as well as engineering students who are close to graduating from an appropriately-accredited engineering program. Roughly two-thirds of those who take the FE test in the fields of Chemical, Civil, Electrical and Computer, Environmental, Industrial and Systems, and Mechanical specialties pass it. The rate drops to 57% for test takers whose backgrounds are from other disciplines.

Typical Types of FE Test Misconduct

The FE Test is administered in approved test centers under strictly-controlled conditions. The NCEES Examinee Guide states that examinees are only allowed to bring a very limited number of specifically-designated items with them into the testing room, in particular:

  • The ID used during the admission process
  • A calculator – but only certain specific brands and models
  • a key to the storage locker provided by the test center
  • a reusable booklet and marker supplied by the test center
  • if you wear glasses, you may bring them but may not bring the case
  • a light sweater or jacket
  • applicable items from the test center "comfort aid" list

Other things like mobile phones, fitness trackers, other electronic devices, watches, wallets, purses, hats or other non-religious head coverings, bags, coats, books, notes, pens, pencils, erasers, and food and beverages are not allowed in the testing room.

The test center will provide reusable test booklets for the FE Test that may not be removed from the testing room and must be returned to the test administrator after the exam.

Test centers record examinees' test results, their photograph, signature, and their palm vein pattern, all in an effort to reduce the opportunities for cheating.

Given the strict conditions under which the FE Test is administered, opportunities for misconduct during the test are somewhat limited. Two areas where this could happen are an unintentional breach of the rules (such as accidentally wearing a watch or bringing in a mobile phone), or making surreptitious efforts to record the content of the exam, which each test taker agrees in writing in advance to keep confidential.

Another possible area of misconduct would be to have someone else take the test in place of the person who has registered for the FE Test, also known as "surrogate testing." This, of course, would require a significant amount of advance planning and documentary deception. Another possibility is the age-old method of looking over at your neighbor to see what their answer is.

Possible Issues During FE Test Administration

Test administrators have broad authority to take a wide range of actions if they suspect you of cheating on the FE Test, or otherwise engaging in "irregular behavior." This can include kicking you out of the test center, confiscating any prohibited materials you may have brought with you, and reporting you to the NCEES for further investigation.

The NCEES defines "irregular behavior" as including, but not limited to, "failing to work independently; impersonating another individual or permitting such impersonation (surrogate testing); possessing prohibited items; communicating with other examinees or any outside parties by way of cell phone, personal computer, the Internet, or any other means during an exam; disrupting other examinees; creating safety concerns; and possessing, reproducing, or disclosing nonpublic exam questions, answers, or other information regarding the content of the exam before, during, or after the exam administration."

In many cases, however, one person's "irregular behavior" is another person's "honest mistake." Many of us are practically glued to our mobile phones and tuck them in our pockets without thinking twice about it. Our waterproof fitness- and sleep-tracking watches may stay on our wrists for days at a time. If we bring either of these into the FE Test room, we are automatically at risk of being accused of "irregular behavior" when in fact, we're simply guilty of making a human mistake.

The best way to avoid being accused of irregular behavior, of course, is to avoid behaving irregularly in the first place. Study the rules about what the NCEES allows and doesn't allow in the test room, and double-check that you've complied before you walk in that door. If you take a break during the test, don't consult your mobile phone or even your watch (that is also prohibited behavior); leave all of those items alone, safely in the storage locker that the test center provides.

How FE Test Misconduct Is Investigated and Adjudicated

While the NCEES does not disclose all of the details of how it investigates suspected test misconduct, it is clear that the organization basically holds all the cards. You are required to "cooperate fully in any investigation of a suspected irregularity," and the NCEES reserves the right to "pursue all remedies" against you for substantiated irregularities (while not going into detail about what "all" the remedies are).

Generally speaking, the NCEES manager of compliance and security reviews all reports of test irregularities. If the investigation substantiates the claim that you engaged in prohibited behavior, the NCEES CEO, COO, and director of exam services each review the finding and will decide whether or not to invalidate your test results.

It is during the course of any investigation that the services of an experienced education lawyer can be most helpful. Joseph D. Lento has the knowledge and the skill you need to help you understand the process and to provide effective and supported arguments on your own behalf to the NCEES.

Possible Consequences for FE Test Misconduct

In addition to invalidating your test results, the NCEES could report you to your local NCEES board (there are boards for each state and a number of US territories), and the local board could prevent you from attempting to retake the FE Test in the future. In addition, if you are found to have taken or copied test questions, the NCEES could pursue criminal or civil copyright claims against you and could attempt (as it