For nearly half a century, promotion tests have helped the Air Force decide who to advance into senior non-commissioned officer ranks.
But beginning this year, the Air Force will drop the Weighted Airman Promotion System, or WAPS, tests for SNCO promotions for active-duty airmen.
If this change works as intended, the Air Force thinks it will prevent sub-par airmen squeaking through the promotion process by testing well — and result in better leaders for the entire enlisted force.
“We found that removing the testing portion will eliminate any possibility that airmen without the strongest leadership potential might test into promotion, while also ensuring that our strongest performers continue to earn the promotion they deserve,” said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright in the Feb. 4 release announcing the change.
Until now, SNCO promotions have followed a two-phase process, with WAPS testing coming first. Airmen up for promotion to master sergeant have had to take two tests, known as the specialty knowledge test and the promotion fitness exam, while senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant promotions are only required to take the promotion fitness exam. The second phase consists of a central evaluation board.
But beginning with the chief master sergeant cycle this fall, the tests will be dropped, as will separate decoration scores. Instead, the Air Force will only use a promotion board process, similar to the board process for officers, to decide which airmen to promote to E-7, E-8 and E-9.
In a Feb. 4 interview with Air Force Times, Wright said the board process is a better way to judge who has demonstrated a record of leadership and exemplary performance.
In a video posted on his Facebook page, Wright said the promotion board process gave the Air Force the greatest confidence that the right people were being promoted.
“We feel pretty confident that we can select the right leaders based upon their performance, and what they’ve done in terms of how well they’ve led, the level of job responsibility, breadth of experience and all those things that we look at on the board,” Wright said. “And so, we really no longer need the test.”
Promotion boards will still use the current scoring process and continue to review the last five years of evaluations and all awards and decorations.
“This adjustment focuses on performance being the driving factor we consider when selecting our senior NCOs,” Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force’s personnel chief, said in the release. “It also continues our work toward increasing transparency and making our processes simple.”
The wrong results?
Wright said the Air Force studied this issue for several years before concluding that WAPS testing was unnecessary and irrelevant when trying to decide who was ready for promotion to the highest enlisted ranks.
In his video, Wright suggested that testing may have even led to the wrong people getting promoted.
“You could be an average to below-average performer and test your way into a promotion that you probably don’t deserve,” Wright said in his Facebook video. “You could be an excellent performer and test your way out of a promotion that you likely deserve. And so we wanted to eliminate that bit of inconsistency in the process.”
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The Air Force ran experiments on five years of past promotions to E-8 and E-9 to see what would have changed if tests were not included and promotions were determined using just the board score and decorations points, Wright said in the interview.
The results were dramatic. Between 15 and 20 percent of airmen who had been chosen for SNCO promotions in the past would not have been selected under the revised system. Wright said those individuals “potentially should not [have been] promoted.”
“It flips that dynamic,” Wright said. “If commanders say that this person is ready for promotion [and] the board looks at your records and determines that you’re ready for a promotion, we don’t need to further validate it by having you take the test.”
Each WAPS test consists of 100 questions, and each test could earn an airman as many as 100 points toward promotion. The tests accounted for about 30 percent of the maximum potential points for an aspiring master sergeant, and about 17 percent for a senior or chief master sergeant promotion.
Specialty knowledge tests measure how well an airman knows information specific to his or her career field, while promotion fitness exams measure general knowledge in such key areas as leadership, Air Force history and organization, regulations, customs and courtesies.
But the importance of using a promotion fitness exam to quiz SNCOs or aspiring SNCOs on those subjects is fading, Wright said in the interview. They’ll still be expected to know things like history, organization and protocol, he said, but proving that isn’t critical to decide who’s ready for promotion.
“SNCOs will either know most of that stuff or know how to find it … when they need it,” Wright said. “Having them memorize it for the purpose of taking a test, in this day and age, didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Wright also doesn’t see a need for the specialty knowledge test because an airman will have already proven he or she knows his job. To even be considered for promotion to master sergeant, an airman must have achieved a skill level of 7, or supervisor, he said. To reach a 7-skill level, an airman must have taken a career development course or similar education course and be certified by his commander as technically proficient.
“They’ve already passed that gate that we were asking them to demonstrate again,” Wright said.
The reaction from airmen appeared divided after the decision to drop WAPS testing was announced. In comments on the Facebook pages for Wright and Air Force Times, some current and retired airmen said they felt WAPS testing was leading to undeserving airmen being promoted into leadership roles, and they applauded the change.
“Do you want someone that guessed well (or studied a lot) and passed two tests once running the show?” wrote Frank Barone on the Air Force Times Facebook page, adding that he believes the Air Force made a big mistake by getting rid of time-in-grade points. “Would you trust a doctor that got an ‘A’ in college or the guy that’s been doing it for 15+ years. … The sharpest and longest pencil in the box hasn’t written a word yet, but they can still bubble a sheet.”
Others also felt tests were unnecessary.
“I think this is a step in the right direction,” wrote airman Nick Cruz on Wright’s Facebook post. “Why do I need to test SKT to prove job knowledge for a job that I’ll never do again once I get promoted?”
But still others worried that it could lead to favoritism in who is selected for promotion, and that airmen working for toxic leaders could end up at a disadvantage. Even if the testing process wasn’t perfect, they said, it gave them some direct control over their promotion chances.
“At least with the tests, you could do something to control your own destiny,” Jess Sherman, an airman at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, wrote on Wright’s Facebook video page. “I’m personally not a great test taker, but at least it gave me a little something I could do to have the power in my hands when I had” poor leaders.
Retired Col. Terry Stevens, a former personnelist who worked at the Air Force Personnel Center, said this change — which follows the gradual elimination of time-in-grade and time-in-service points that was completed in 2017 — shows the Air Force is cutting back too much on the “whole person concept.”
“The more data you have available to a promotion board, the better their selections are going to be,” Stevens said in a Feb. 4 interview. “They’re just trimming it back way too much. They had an excellent system, probably the best in the military, and they’re taking it all apart.”
Stevens believes the concern that some people who aren’t good test takers are missing out on promotions they deserve is an old wives’ tale. He said that including objective measurements such as tests reduces the chances of someone’s “fair-haired boy” getting through the promotion process, and this change will make favoritism worse.
In the interview, Wright said favoritism is always a concern, but he’s confident the board process will help weed it out. Each board is made up of two chiefs and a colonel, he said, who each give airmen six to 10 points, and can give half points.
If there is more than a point and a half difference between board members’ scores for a particular airman, it gets flagged as a “split.” At that point, the three board members talk it out and must iron out their differences before moving on. Those scores are finally added to find the composite panel score, which is then multiplied by 15 to determine the board score, which can range from 270 to 450.
“It would be naïve to say this rids our system of all favoritism, but I feel pretty comfortable with the board process,” Wright said. “We are very selective about who we ask to sit on these promotion panels.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, who was the Air Force’s personnel chief until late 2013, said focusing more on promotion boards will be good for the Air Force and for the quality of its enlisted leadership. It’s great if someone can take a test, he said, but day-to-day, the Air Force isn’t looking for someone to take a test. It’s looking for someone who can get the job done.
“The Air Force has always been very confident in the outcome of promotion boards,” Jones said. “When [board members] evaluate the records, the level of responsibility, the jobs people held, how challenging the jobs are, those are some of the discernments that it’s hard to get out of a test.”
The change will also free up a great deal of time for airmen, who often spent four to eight months studying and preparing for the WAPS test, Wright said in the video. Now, he said, airmen can better use that time for their family, their resilience, and taking care of their airmen.
The renewed focus on performance, and not test-taking, will also help airmen focus on more important issues such as their leadership and responsibilities, how well they’re doing in their primary duties, managing resources and executing the mission, Wright said.
Wright doesn’t think it will necessarily become any easier or harder to be promoted, but the process will become more efficient.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.