Stenographers and typists taking a civil service exam on July 9, 1936.

The digital age has made it so easy to apply for federal jobs that the government has grown overwhelmed. Flooded by résumés and cover letters, hiring officials are exasperated by their failure to identify and land the most-qualified civil servants, so they’re looking to the past for a way out.

After 34 years, they’re bringing back the civil service exam.

Even as the government is reaching back to the days before the Internet to revive testing, the exam being rolled out is wholly modern. Three dozen agencies across the government — including Defense, Justice and Health and Human Services — have begun using online tests to screen applicants for some jobs and promote senior employees.

The new generation of exams, called USA Hire, uses animated avatars and videos to simulate challenges that could confront employees, testing their reasoning and problem-solving skills. Advances in technology allow the tests to scale questions; a correct answer leads to a harder question and an incorrect one rachets down to an easier option. Scoring is instantaneous, an advance that can quickly winnow the pool of applicants.

Up to 10 percent of civilian government jobs are now being filled based in part on the scores on these new tests, according to officials at the Office of Personnel Management, which is promoting the initiative.

“Assessments have the potential to improve the hiring process like nothing I’ve seen in the last 30 years,” said Jeffrey Neal, a longtime federal personnel manager who retired in 2011 as DHS’s human capital chief and is now a vice president at ICF International, which is developing exams for the Internal Revenue Service, the Census Bureau and other offices.

The new exams still assess general aptitude, as the old-time civil service tests did. But to avoid possible discrimination, a concern with the old tests, the new exams also measure other attributes, such as teamwork, problem solving and judgment, and are tailored to assess specific job skills. The new tests were developed by personnel psychologists, who seek to ensure that all applicants are on a level field, OPM officials said.

1

You rush into the office after being out in the field on a sales call. You enter the office and your manager and a client are waiting for you in the conference room for a scheduled appointment. The clock on the wall shows it is 10:10. Your manager takes you outside the conference room and says, "Where have you been? The client had a scheduled appointment with us at nine. Maybe you need to change your time management system."

Apologize to the client and explain that you had a scheduling conflict.
Defend yourself to your manager by explaining you were at a critical sales call.
Proceed with the meeting without mentioning the fact that you were late.
Discuss your schedule with your manager after the meeting.

2

This is a pricing table for television sets and the optional warranties that can be sold along with each set. A Super Sale Discount rate is provided: On Super Sale days this rate is discounted off of the television's shelf price as well as the price of its warranty. 

The Super Sale Discount is applied to all televisions this weekend. During that time, Kevin sells five 48" televisions and one 55", all without the warranty. The total cost of these televisions, after the discounts are applied, is: 

$6,675.00
$6,750.00
$7,200.00

Your score: 0 / 2

The original civil service test was thrown out by the Nixon administration after a lawsuit in 1972 claimed it was biased because black and Latino applicants did not score as well. A new test was developed, but those groups continued to score poorly. After another discrimination case, the Carter administration signed a consent decree in 1981 agreeing to abolish it.

Gone were the proctored testing rooms filled with long rows of desks where college graduates took pencil to paper starting in the 1950s to demonstrate their reading and writing skills.

While the government has continued to test for the foreign service and law enforcement jobs such as border patrol agents and transportation security screeners, most applicants who make it past the initial screening do so based on résumés, self-assessments and a measure of luck. Essays were eliminated four years ago after the Obama administration determined they took too long to read, were vulnerable to being ghostwritten and did not adequately measure job skills.

“In the interest of speeding up the hiring process, we’ve ended up with this crappy process that doesn’t get the quality you need,” Neal said.

With some vacancies attracting hundreds of applicants, hiring officials despair of finding the one with the best fit. They have little to help them identify top talent at a crucial time when waves of senior employees are retiring.

“What we were doing was unsustainable,” said Wendy Stoner, director of Emerging Talent Development for the General Services Administration, which launched employment testing last fall for entry-level financial and program analysts, IT and contract specialists. “We thought, ‘there has got to be an alternative.’ ’’

Yet with the new exams, have come concerns about how to prevent cheating and identify candidates who might be poor test takers. And there’s anxiety in some quarters about how to keep the tests from running afoul of discrimination concerns.

“There is a lot of fear out there over what is okay to use and what is not,” said Patrick Sharpe, manager of OPM’s testing services division. “The history is one reason. Everybody is somewhat new to the game.”

Walt Keays, a program manager at the Interior Department, said tests could be useful only if they “reflect the specific position being considered.” He worries that some people don’t take test well, “a situation that may preclude an exceptional candidate from being considered.”

“If the test becomes another civil service exam then I think it will be a waste of time,” he said.

Hiring officials say it’s vital to make the hiring process more rigorous since civil servants are notoriously hard to fire, and because agencies tend to promote from within.

“The cost of making a bad hire is so high that you really should invest the time to do it right,” said Mary Draper, who is in charge of the State Department’s foreign service exam.

OPM started to build job exams for the digital age after President Obama signed an executive order in 2010 to reform federal hiring. The idea was to build speed and quality into the selection process. It can be more than six months before some applicants receive a form letter telling them they didn’t get the job.

Right now, most applicants work through USAJobs, the government’s online portal, and are asked to assess their own skills and qualifications. But it’s easy to game the system. Some talented candidates get eliminated because they don’t rate themselves high enough. Others exaggerate their skills.

The screening is done by algorithm. Savvy candidates learn that their résumés will go to top of the pile for further vetting if they contain keywords in the job description.

[Answer six questions from the 1956 civil service exam]

The new tests launched slowly in 2012 with an exam for 12 information technology, human resources and administrative jobs across government, from GS levels 3 to 15, according to Ryan O’Leary, senior director of hiring and assessment at PDRI in Arlington, which developed the test for OPM. Agencies could tweak the tests for other jobs.

The exams include multiple-choice questions and questions that require written answers. The tests take about 90 minutes, although GSA’s take three hours. The scores are usually good for a year.

While some tests can be proctored online, most are not. OPM officials say they struggled with how to keep applicants, who take the tests on their own computers, from cheating. Each question has a time limit, and questions change constantly.

Momentum has picked up in the past year, officials said.

At the National Security Agency, spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in a statement that tests “predict future performance on the job” and are good guides in hiring decisions. “It is imperative that we hire the best and brightest to help us defend the nation and protect vital networks.”

Federal employee unions said they were unfamiliar with the new hiring system and could not take a position. Kathryn Troutman, president of the Resume Place, who has made a business out of helping people apply for federal jobs, is dismissive of the new tests. “Just more hoops to go through to get a federal job,” she said.

But for Wendy Stoner at GSA, who filled 21 of 25 entry-level jobs last fall from a pool of 380 applicants, “testing has been a huge, positive step forward.” Her agency is now planning to roll out testing for other type of vacancies.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.