Wednesday, July 01, 2009


The recent Supreme Court decision brought me back to a subject I’ve mulled over for many years -- since 1973, in fact. The recent decision had to do with testing for promotions and hiring by a fire department but I was thinking about the civil service test that propelled me into being an animal control officer, dog-catcher to the vulgar unenlightened.

What wasn’t addressed by the Supreme Court was that the tests are always a reflection of what Civil Service employees think the job is. If you think of fire departments as daring heroes dragging hoses into a holocaust and saving small children, that will mean one kind of test. If you think of fighting fires as a scientifically informed and strategic deployment of coordinated forces, you’ll want another kind of test. The kicker is that the whole idea of “testing” evokes school and those who have had to provide results quickly know that multiple choice is great to grade. Hard to write without raising issues, maybe, as the college qualifying tests well know.

The fire fighting tests were not attacked on grounds that the questions were poorly written. Rather the argument, which was supported by the results, is that multiple choice tests cause whites (who are culturally congruent) to score higher than blacks or, indeed, browns. The particular test in question was 60% weighted to multiple choice and produced NO black scorers high enough to be hired or promoted, which surprised the culture-dumb city.

Civil service people who write tests are influenced by the advice of those who work with the present job holders. At the particular time that I was taking the test for ACO, the previous version was designed by an enterprising young woman who thought the point was to pursue and capture dogs -- right? So as part of the test she designed something that looked like one of those dog agility tests: the applicant scrambled through a tube, leapt over a desk, ran a quick labyrinth of chairs, and jumped over a carpet. She didn’t understand that capturing a dog is more a matter of strategy than agility. As Mel Martsolf, our field supervisor, used to point out, “You have two legs -- dogs have four.”

So the test I took, which was partly responding to Mike Burgwin, the new assistant manager, focused on thinking and the ability to write a decent report, which is the basis of conviction in court. As a former English teacher, I had a clear advantage.

There was also a bit of questioning about dog breeds, since descriptions of dogs were controlled by those categories. Dog breeds as a concept are about as useful as the concept of human races, which is closely related. Both began as location-adapted appearance and abilities, which were soon muddled and dispersed by people and animals moving around the planet. The assumptions attached to, say, a herding animal when any diverging offspring were simply destroyed became useless when people began to raise “breeds” for money, selling “pet-quality” animals at a discount instead of culling them. On the other hand, close-inbreeding to meet arbitrary standards soon caused some very bad genetic faults to be perpetuated. In the end, dogs have their own plans which don’t include being status-markers in shows. The biggest and boldest gets the most puppies and the standards are a real bitch. That's why mutts are high quality.

So I was at the top of the list for the animal control job at a time when jobs were scarce and more than a hundred showed up for the multiple choice part. The next person on the list was a pre-veterinary student, also female. There had never been a female officer. The third was male and the manager -- virulently sexist -- tried to hire him, but he turned out to have a felony record. Since we were technically sheriff’s deputies, this disqualified him. The next person on the list was probably the most highly qualified, a jazzy blonde who had refused to spend a nice weekend at the beach with the manager so she could forget it. After much strategy meant to shake me off, I got the job.

I passed the interview part of the test because of my experience on the Blackfeet Reservation, which particularly impressed the young black man on the interviewing panel. No black person scored high on the test and, in fact, I don’t remember any of them taking the test at all. That community is not fond of dogs OR law officers. The two animal control officers who had been doing the job for years had been required to re-take the test. They didn’t pass. Rationalizations were found to keep them working: special status, grandfathered, something like that. They were both the very best at actually “catching” dogs but they had a tendency to color a little outside the legal lines. One had had polio and limped badly, but was a very wily guy and good at roping, which was not on the test.

Decades later I applied for the job I had once held, mostly out of curiosity. This time an item on the test consisted of choosing a dog from a kennel and loading it into the new expensive separate-compartment trucks. I flunked because I couldn’t do ten sit-ups. The examiners had been instructed to eliminate anyone who might end up on disability with a bad back.

Tests are like maps: sometimes they relate to the territory and sometimes they don’t. They can hardly be more than a rough guide or, as someone pointed out about terrain, to contain ALL the information they would have to BE the terrain. But sometimes a new kind of map can take one into uncharted territory, which this test did for me. As well, it made some new roads for animal control since the sexist manager left shortly, the assistant manager was promoted, and he supported an effort for us to get smarter and more professional. My writing skills and teaching experience helped me design a program of education. All this led to NACA, the National Animal Control Association, a continuing force for professionalization and research.

Then came the Civil Service exam for the education coordinator job I had invented. I came in second. The interview panel liked a hotshot handsome young man with PR experience a lot better. Luckily, since the manager could legally hire any of the top three people, he did hire me -- after torturing me with doubt for a while.

The bottom line is that people are far too quick to assume that testing really IS something. The ultimate way to tell whether someone will be good in a job is in retrospect, but that’s of no use when hiring. Anyway, jobs change. Animal Control is moving from shelter-based humane enforcement, to street-located prevention and intervention for both animals and people.

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