What were the Morse requirements?

What were Morse code requirements in Amateur Radio, before the 2001 changes and the complete abolition of code testing in 2005?  And what were the testing procedures?

A majority of active amateur radio operators grew into the hobby during the period of “incentive licensing.”  The general idea was that operators who demonstrated more skills, earned more privileges including more bandwidth.  So there were three standard Morse qualifications that would be familiar to a majority of us:

  • Novice.  The Novice class license was the entry level, or easiest to achieve.  When the class was introduced, the rules called for a Novice to prove an ability to send and receive Morse code at 5 WPM.
  • General.  The General class license required Morse proficiency at 13 WPM.
  • Extra.  The highest license class, or Extra, required Morse proficiency at 20 WPM.

At VE (Volunteer Examiner) sessions the examiners would play a bit of warmup or practice material and then a  5 minute tapes of the exam test.  The Novice was sent at a character speed of 15-18wpm (standardized on 15 in 2001) with proportional or “Farnsworth” spacing.  The General test was at a character speed of 18-20wpm and the Extra was at 22-23.

Some VE teams had headphones for the candidates, but most just played the tape over a speaker.  In theory a CW-qualified member of the VE team had to monitor the session in case there were complaints of a bad tape, or extraneous noise, etc.

After the tape was played the candidate was usually given a minute or two to “correct his copy,” which always seemed strange to me but yes you could fill in the blanks if you knew what the word was.  In the 5wpm test the VE team was allowed to determine, and state up front,  how many characters (if any) the candidate would be able to write down as dots and dashes for translation in the correction period).

Then the candidate was given 10 questions to answer based on the received text.  The candidate was required to answer 7 out of 10 questions correctly.  Some VE teams (notably W5YI VEC teams) used multiple choice questions.  If the candidate failed to answer 7 questions correctly, the copied text was examined and if the candidate copied one minute solid (anywhere in the test) a pass was awarded.  I saw that happen many times with the 5wpm test, but very rarely with the higher speed tests.  A minute of “solid copy” meant 25 consecutive characters without error at 5 WPM, 65 characters at 13 WPM, and 100 characters at 20 WPM.

In 2001 the 13 and 20 WPM requirements were dropped, and the 5 WPM test was standardized at 15 WPM character speed (previously the ARRL used 15 and the W5YI group used 18).  And multiple choice tests were banned, period.

The Morse tests were usually given first, and started with the 20 WPM test as a sensible arrangement to minimize work for the VE team– unlike the written tests, you could jump right in at 20 and if you passed, you you received credit for the lower speed elements and didn’t have to test them.  I always wished the written tests had been done the same way.  The fact that you had to pass them in order was an indication of just how much of the Novice test was about being a Novice, etc, even though if you were aimed at general you might wonder why you needed to know all the band, mode, and power limits etc. stuff that pertained to Novice and Tech classes.  It is also worth noting that the written tests for license classes that had a Morse requirement (Novice, General, and Extra) were substantially shorter and easier than those that didn’t (Technician and Extra).
Before incentive licensing there were a number of different standards, and test formats, but perhaps the most interesting was the “sending test.”  Remember the wording of the requirement was “send and receive?”  Sending tests were abolished about the time non-departmental or VE (Volunteer Examiner) became common.  There were two reasons for dropping the sending requirements:

1.  The sending tests were inefficient and expensive.  While a room-full of candidates could take the receiving test at the same time, the sending tests were one-on-one with a live examiner.

2.  Candidates who passed the receiving test “almost never” failed the sending test.  This was seen as proof that anyone who can copy code can send it.

The problem with argument 1. is that under the VE system, the examiners are all volunteers and so there was no cost. The general speculation was that dropping the sending tests had more to do with the notion that few VEs were competent to administer a sending test, evaluation was too subjective, and/or the FCC didn’t trust VE’s  with anything that couldn’t be proven on paper.

The problem with argument 2. is a matter of simple logic.  Nearly 100% success in the sending tests did not prove that you can send code if you can receive it. It proved that you could learn to send code.  Without the sending test, many new hams went on the air without bothering to learn how to send code.  There was a built in “incentive system” to the extent that most hams started out with lower class licenses and thus tended to hang out in their own parts of the band, so it wasn’t the chaos on the bands that happened later when the code requirements were dropped.  But it could and should have been seen as a potential problem.

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