Why Do So Many Students Fail the ServSafe Exam?

By Capt. W. Russ Webster, USCG (Ret.)

Similar to other careers, culinary arts has standards that are supported with an exam process that establishes credibility. To culinary arts students, the ServSafe safety exam is a critical component for any serious food professional. Passing the exam is a gateway to higher wages for some and a requirement for SMCC’s two-year Culinary Arts degree. Test takers must pass the 90-question test with a 75-percent grade or higher. So, why are so many students — as many as 30 or 40 percent of them — having to take the exam more than once?

To better understand the issues, I spoke to my fellow Culinary Arts students and tracked my own successes and failures in the approach to the exam. At 62 years young and with previous schooling under my belt, Chef Rascati, the CULA 100 Food Safety course administrator, told me I could have skipped the course and just “taken the exam.” Having taken most of the CULA 100 course at this writing, I can assure readers that “I could not have passed the ServSafe exam without having been in the chef’s course.” But, I’m a baby boomer.

It’s important to note that I studied like other students over 40 — I read everything, attended every class, got a grasp of concepts, did the Pearson online practice quizzes and took ServSafe’s study test. So, why did so many of my classmates, especially millennials, have difficulty passing the class? One 20-year-old student freely admitted to me that he “just didn’t study until the night before the exam.” Several students were flummoxed by the Pearson online learning modules and ServSafe’s practice test.

My own experience with Pearson’s online “dynamic” learning module exposed a flaw in the system where if you got the question wrong, the system just kept asking you the same question until you got it right. A more valid system that tested “concepts” would replace the original question with a different but similar question in the same learning area.

My approach to learning was clearly different from the other students, who were 40 years my junior. The younger students, to a fault, relied heavily on the online practice tutorials to pass the exam. Chef Rascati had told her students, “Study this, it’s on the exam.” And, often, it was. But, answering the exam question about the minimum internal cooking temperature for hot-held macaroni and cheese meant you had to know the concept that mac and cheese fits into the grains (rice, pasta) category.

But, not every failure can be ascribed to generational learning differences and faulty online learning resources. I spoke to another chef, who made me aware that food-safety-exam “pass rates” for focused ServSafe-sponsored courses were much higher than SMCC student pass rates — as high as 80 percent. When I queried why, the answer was complex, and on some level, disturbing. The chef asked me to consider who was paying for the college course and what the motivations might be for the student versus for the outside culinary professional.

When I dug deeper, the chef explained that outside students had already been in the industry for a while, whereas most Culinary Arts students were just getting started in their understanding of food concepts. And, the outside students had added motivations to pass in many cases because a successful exam often meant an immediate bump in pay.

I’m still left with questions about responsibilities in the ServSafe exam dilemma. If the disconnect between online food safety learning resources is known, who has the responsibility to address the issue? SMCC certainly should advocate for more advanced technical resources that help new generations of learners. Pearson, the online vendor, should address the shortfall with more realistic questions provided by ServSafe. And, students should accept responsibility for knowing the concepts and doing whatever is necessary to “get it,” including forming a study group with some over-40 old farts.

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