In Defense of the Foreign Service Officer Test

State Department headquarters in Washington, March 9, 2009.


J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Since 1924, anyone who wanted to become an American diplomat had to pass a rigorous written exam, the Diplomatic Service Staff Test. Now, the State Department says it wants to “modernize its hiring process to create a more inclusive workforce that hires the best talent and represents America’s rich diversity.” “. While candidates will still take the exam, starting June there will be no more pass/fail scores, so candidates who score poorly can still be employed.

Exams have long been considered difficult. In a 1995 interview, veteran diplomat John Edgar Williams recalled that in 1953 the experiment lasted three and a half days and included everything from astronomy to zoology. When I started participating in the 1990s, it took three hours and consisted of a work knowledge section along with the general type of questions that candidates answered on “Jeopardy!,” grammar and usage sections. English language and an essay, are not graded unless you meet the cut-off mark. In a typical year, 10,000 to 20,000 people take the exam, and 2% to 3% of them are employed. Trial expires after 18 months; I passed several times before being offered the job in 2001.

The State Department made changes to the test in 1989, in response to decades of litigation by female candidates, and in 2006 after George Staples, then the Director General of the Department of State assignment, calling for its removal because of its negative impact on minority recruitment. Female representation has increased to 42%, but in the diplomatic corps it is still 6% black and 7% Hispanic.

A spokeswoman said the State Department was moving toward a “more comprehensive” recruiting approach that would “create a more qualified pool of candidates.” But with the number of job applications already so much higher, why is it imperative to consider candidates who skipped the exam? A spokesperson said the department believes education level and work experience are better predictors of job performance than exams. Perhaps, but the exam and benchmarks introduced an element of merit and transparency into the byzantine recruitment process that included more subjective elements, including oral assessment and personal essays. And the diplomatic corps is full of people who have passed the test and have impressive resumes.

The American Diplomatic Services Association, which represents professional diplomatic and consular officials, issued a statement condemning the move as “against both the letter and the spirit of the many commitments that this administration to its civil servants” and expressed concern “that these unilateral changes risk being seen as overly subjective and subject to partisan influence. ”

The exam was created by the Rogers Act, which abolished the trophy system and transformed the State Department into a professional organization with merit-based recruitment and promotions. Nearly a century later, the State Department believes it needs flexibility in hiring candidates who can’t pass the exam to “modernize American diplomacy and win the competition for talent.” . Let’s hope that doesn’t turn into a new kind of patronage.

Seminara is a former diplomat and author of “Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach of the Earth.”

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Appeared on 3rd May 2022, print edition as ‘In the Examination of Foreign Service’. In Defense of the Foreign Service Officer Test

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