Big change to the way the federal court interpreter exam is rated in the U.S.

July 22, 2013 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As I write this posting many of my friends, colleagues, and students are taking the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States: The federal court interpreter certification test. There are other court or legal exams given by government agencies at the federal and state level, and even the private sector has designed some interpreter exams, but no test is as demanding as the federal certification exam.  This week, just like one summer week every two years since the test has been in place, hundreds of Spanish-English interpreters: veterans, newly graduated, newcomers to the United States, and many others who previously passed the written test (at least one year earlier) are culminating months on study, practice and psychological preparation as they leave their hometown and travel to some of the largest cities in the country to have their skills  tested for some forty five minutes. During that period of time they will attempt to demonstrate that they are ready to interpret simultaneously, consecutively, and to sight-translate in the United States federal courts.

Within the profession it is very well known that this is not an easy exam; in fact, the passing rate of the attorney bar exam is substantially higher than the federal court interpreter certification test.  As someone who has gone through both exams I can even say that it is harder to get certified as an interpreter.  Traditionally there have been two systems to rate the examinee’s rendition: For many years the test was administered orally before a live jury of three certified interpreters who would rate the applicant’s performance.  Years later the system changed to a recorded test where the examinee would sit in a room with a proctor and record the rendition. Afterwards, the recording was reviewed by a team of three certified interpreters that would rate the performance based on the recorded material.  This year, for the first time ever, the renditions will be rated not by a jury of three certified interpreters, but by teams of two.

This change is as radical as the switch from a live oral test to a recorded one.  Generally in life we encounter all kinds of panels, juries, and other deliberation groups that consist of an odd number of members, and there is a reason for that configuration: You eliminate the possibility of a tie, you discard the scenarios where an even number of people can agree to one thing and at the same time another even number of people agree to another making a majority decision very difficult.  The odd number gives you unanimity or a tie breaker. In other words, it assures you that there will be a final decision. In the case of the federal court examination a final vote of 3-0 or 2-1.

The new system will no doubt result in many unanimous decisions of pass or fail, but there will be ties, and when the two raters cannot reach a consensus the exam will be sent to another panel who will rate it and decide.  The system seems fair, I am not so sure that it will be as quick and efficient as the 3-rater panel, but it seems like a reasonable solution to a tie.  I know many of the raters and as far as I can tell, an overwhelming majority have rated exams in the past; many of these interpreter-raters have scored tests under the two previous systems and most of them have demonstrated to be fair and capable.  I do not believe that this will make the exam easier or more difficult, I don’t know if this will make it more efficient, and I don’t know yet if this will make it as fair as it has always been in the past. Everything indicates that it will be fine, but to know for sure we have to wait and see. I will be carefully watching the outcome as I am interested to see not only if more people fail under this new system, but also if more people pass. Big changes one way or the other could be a symptom that something is not as it was before.  I give them the benefit of the doubt and today I assume that everything will be fine; it is just that a jury of two looks a bit strange.  Please share your thoughts on the test and this new rating system.

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§ 10 Responses to Big change to the way the federal court interpreter exam is rated in the U.S.

  • Aimee says:

    I do think having the passages recorded instead of live makes the process more consistent across locations and even between exams. 2 raters versus 3 is a little different to gauge – I suppose we will see how efficient it is when we see how many ties occur. I do wonder if there is a greater likelihood of one person persuading the other so as to avoid too many ties.

    • Lorena says:

      Thank you for this assessment.
      I wonder if you would/could do the same analysis for the two national medical exams, CCHI and NBMCI for the benefit of medical interpreting end users.
      There is much confusion in Calif. about what it takes to become a certified interpreter and many are under the misconception that some forms of interpreting are more “difficult” than others and that medical interpreting isn’t worthy of fair compensation.
      Medical interpreting is finally gaining ground as a profession, one requiring interpreting skills and training, knowledge of specific terminology and the ability to keep calm in what are often life threatening situations. Even if they are not, people’s health and wellbeing, ability to return to work and simply continue to function as a whole, healthy human being are at stake and using a patient, competent interpreter is imperative.
      While the Federal exam might be the most rigorous, it would be interesting to know what the pass rates and processes are for these other exams.
      I enjoy reading your blog and think if you wrote about the above it will carry much weight. Thanks.

  • The translation organization as this sort of is certified and hence is safe for you personally to approach them and nonetheless preserve the privacy of the correspondences.

  • Stephen H. Franke says:


    I would be most appreciative if the original poster would kindly clarify WHICH court-related agency or regional jurisdiction of the US Federal Government has proponency (or “ownership” as the authority) and administers this examination, apparently only for language pair English Spanish?

    Does NAJIT not play a role in such testing and professional certification?


    Stephen H. Franke
    Senior veteran Arabic linguist
    San Pedro, California

    • Stephen, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is in charge of administering the federal court interpreter examination. There are federal court interpreter certifications in Spanish, Navajo, and Haitian-Creole. At this time the test is only offered in Spanish. NAJIT has a court interpreter test in Spanish, but they have nothing to do with the certification process.

  • Gold Price says:

    So, once again, like a rare comet, the federal court interpreter oral examination has come and gone. It won’t be back again for another two years. To those who braved the experience (I myself made an attempt many, many years ago) don’t ruminate about it too much. You won’t have the results for several weeks so it’s no good fretting.

  • Laura Salcedo says:

    Is there any reliable way to know the passing rate? Any information about appealing the test results? Is this something that the candidates may request and if so, can anyone post on his/her experience in doing so? I just got my results (74%, so did not pass) but since they did not grade each component the number sounds to me like pulled out of the blue. I was thinking about requesting a review.

    • legalspanish says:

      The number you get on your score report is not your RAW score (the percentage of questions you answered right) but rather a SCALED score. This is because once the tests are graded, they´re sent to the testing company and they do certain calculations to account for the varying difficulty of different versions of the test, other peoples´ performance, etc. (That´s why it took so long to get scores after the tests were graded in august.) It´s all rather opaque unless you´re a PhD in stats or psychometrics. At any rate, this process may raise or lower your score by a few points but a pass or a fail will still be a pass or a fail, as I understand it.
      Ask as you might, they will not give you a section-by-section breakdown. I don´t know why they do that but I would think it´s partially because they don´t want to deal with all of the questions/complaints from people on why their raw scores on the sections don´t match their final scaled score. I agree it´s a disservice to candidates- if they don´t want to disclose scores on individual sections they could at least offer general qualitative feedback identifying areas to improve like ¨work on pronunciation¨ or ¨improve vocabulary¨.

    • Silvina Tripodi says:

      Good luck! I have over 15 yrs experience as a Certified Interpreter and University professor and received a 70% one year and after additional experience and studies I somehow scored less- 54% the following exam. When I requested a review their response back was, “FCICE program staff have reviewed your exam and confirmed that your oral exam score was reported correctly.” that’s it! No explanation as to how they came to that score or what I did or did not do in the low scored units. Nothing, it’s all subjective….which does not make sense. An exam cannot be scored subjectively nor can examinees improve on their low scores if the information or breakdown is not given. When I received a 70% a breakdown was given for each unit of the exam, simultaneous,consecutive etc…in the following exam (54%) that information was removed. Basically, the raters could give any score whether fair or not and as an examine you have no proof or get any feedback on how your exam was scored. Let’s not forget the registration fee one pays each time the exam is taken and how many Interpreters do not pass. $$$$$$
      One more thing, those I know who do pass the Federal exam are not equipped to perform at that level so therefore choose not to work for the federal court. ?????
      If the program and raters are scoring correctly then why is this information not available?

  • Harold Schuller says:



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