The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) examinations provide a higher bar than many in the public, and in the engineering profession, might think. Based on the data and estimation procedures below, it is estimated that some 30–40% of civil engineering exam takers, anda similar percentage of electrical engineering exam takers, are unable to pass one of the two examinations.
A recent paper(Musselman, Nelson, and Phillips) shows pass rates (available from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying) for the FE exam for a five-year period, as presented below.
Average NCEES FE Exam Pass Rates, 2005 through April 2010
For civil and environmental engineers, who comprise about two-thirds of licensed engineers, the failure rate on average was 26% and 21%, respectively. Some of those who fail re-take the FE exam, although pass rates decline with subsequent attempts.
Next, take a look at the pass rates for the October 2010 PE exams below.
Pass Rates for the October 2010 PE Exam Administration
|Exam||First-time Takers||Repeat Takers|
|Architectural (April 2010)||75%||47%|
|Electrical and Computer||66%||
|Metallurgical and Materials||64%||50%|
|Mining and Mineral Processing||79%||46%|
|Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (April 2010)||85%||75%|
|*Note, the 16-hour structural engineering exam has replaced the previous Structural I and Structural II examinations.|
The pass rate in October 2010 for civil engineers was 62%, and the pass rate for environmental engineers was 77%.
The data in the tables above are from NCEES. The estimates provided below were made by the author using that data, and do not reflect any official position of NCEES.
The net effect of the two examinations for environmental engineers is that 21% are failing the FE exam, and 23% of first-time takers fail the PE exam, a total of 44%. If one assumes that three-quarters of those who fail the exam take it again, and with an assumed pass rate for multi-time takers of 48%, then the overall pass rate for environmental engineers might be estimated to be about 80%.
The situation for civil engineers is not quite as positive. The pass rate on the PE exam for first time takers was 62%, in October, 2010. A 26% failure rate on the FE exam, combined with a 38% failure rate on the PE exam yields 64% of civil engineers who fail one of the two exams upon taking it for the first time (less those who fail each exam on their first attempt). If three-quarters of those who fail repeat the exam twice if necessary, and if the pass rate on both FE and PE exams for multiple-time takers is 27%, as reported for the October 2010 PE exam administration, the net pass rate on the two exams for civilexam takers is on the order of 60%.The pass rate for the April, 2011 administration of the PE exam for civil engineers was reported to be better – 69% for first time takers and 40% for repeat takers. Using these pass rates, and the estimation procedure outlined above, the net pass rate on the two exams for civil engineering exam takers would be estimated to be about 70%. Can it be that about 30–40% of the civil engineering exam takers in the U.S. are unable to pass both the FE and PE exams? That appears to be the case.
I don’t mean at all to pick on civil engineering. By the same estimation procedure using the October, 2010 PE exam data, electrical engineering has about a 66% overall pass rate, which is in the same ballpark. It should also be noted that some civil engineering exam takers are not graduates of EAC ABET engineering programs, but rather may be educated in technology programs, other engineering disciplines or other fields of study, if and as approved for the exam by individual state boards. This is a small, but not insignificant, percentage.
I would caution anyone from drawing conclusions from the varying pass rates in different engineering disciplines. Each is a different examination, assessing a different body of knowledge. The different bodies of knowledge assessed yield different cut scores. In some disciplines, like civil and environmental engineering, most graduates take the examinations, while in other disciplines, it is a smaller subset of all graduates. This can make a significant difference in the pool of exam takers. The FE examination is now used commonly for outcomes assessment. As such, there may be a difference in preparation for the FE examination among those who need to pass for eventual licensure purposes and those who are making a good faith effort, but only for outcomes assessment purposes.
The FE and PE exams set a higher bar than many people, including those in the engineering profession, might think.
Editorial input for this piece was provided by Bernard R. Berson, P.E., F.NSPE and L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE.
Published June 29, 2011 by Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.
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