The Air Force plans to roll out online promotion testing for mid-level enlisted airmen starting in January 2024, the Air Force’s personnel chief said Friday.
The long-awaited change is a leap into the digital age for Weighted Airman Promotion System, or WAPS, exams, which judge whether staff sergeants and technical sergeants are ready to advance to the next rank.
“We are finally, after years and years and years of trying to do this, getting rid of the Scantrons,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, told Air Force Times in an exclusive interview.
Weighted Airman Promotion System tests quiz potential promotees on their own career field and on the Air Force more broadly, including its regulations, customs and history. Those scores are combined with other factors, like their military decorations and performance reviews, to determine whether they make the cutoff for promotion.
The Air Force processes more than 120,000 of the tests each year.
Officials hope the move will streamline the process of administering and grading those tests and make it easier to track the related data. Computer-based tests also avoid the slip-ups that can happen when filling out forms by hand, and can’t be misplaced or lost in the mail.
In 2024, airmen will take the paperless exams at testing sites across the Air Force or at locations run by educational testing company Pearson VUE, Miller said. The service is working through final steps to ensure some installations can handle the switch, she said, but the initiative is “about 99% ready to go.”
Miller said it will still take time to validate test results, so airmen won’t see their score pop up on a screen when they’re done. But a brief message will hint at how airmen fared.
“When they finish their tests … they will get, ‘Hey, maybe you should have studied in the history area,’” she said.
It’s unclear whether the service will offer paper copies of Weighted Airman Promotion System tests as a backup option in case of technical difficulties. Leaders have voiced concerns about connectivity and access to computers at some of the Air Force’s overseas bases and more remote outposts.
To get comfortable with online testing, the Air Force first transitioned its Air Force Officer Qualifying Test — a standardized exam used to select applicants for commissioning programs like Officer Training School and the Reserve Officer Training Corps — to Pearson VUE’s online platform.
That has offered a blueprint for moving the larger Weighted Airman Promotion System program to the digital realm.
“That’s going to be a huge win,” Miller said of e-testing. “It seems so simple, but it’s so not.”
Air Force leaders frequently bemoan the lack of digital testing. Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the service’s previous personnel chief, had wanted a plan for online tests in place by the end of 2021.
“The fact that we’re not electronic testing, I think, makes all of us as senior leaders absolutely crazy,” Kelly said in June 2021.
His comments followed an incident in which a mail carrier with a contract to ship Weighted Airman Promotion System papers cross-country misplaced nearly 90 airmen’s finished answer sheets when moving them from Maryland and Arizona to Texas. Those staff sergeants were allowed to retake the test.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, the service’s top enlisted leader, also has acknowledged that airmen are clamoring for online tests but cautioned against the pitfalls of moving too quickly.
“Rolling out new systems and IT platforms is not anything brand new to anybody,” Bass said in 2022. “We need to be a little bit more thoughtful … and ensure that our airmen have all the tools that they need.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.