New York Requires City Tour Guides to Pass Stringent Tests

New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs required Jane Marx, a veteran New York City tour guide, and all 1,300 existing licensed guides to pass a stringent test of arcane information of little practical use. Because Marx refused to take the test, she is not considered one of the city’s superior guides.

New York Requires City Tour Guides to Pass Stringent Tests

For 23 years, Jane Marx has led tours in New York City. She can tell visitors about the history and geography of the Big Apple, as well as humorous and informative anecdotes about the city, but she doesn’t know exactly how big the Bronx is in proportion to cities in Europe. Because she is unaware of this bit of trivia, city officials do not consider her among New York City’s best tour guides. She considers it insulting, but is nonetheless thankful it didn’t rob her of her livelihood – as it once threatened to do.

In May 2003, Gretchen Dykstra, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), decided to replace the existing tour guide licensing exam, which all tour guides at the time had taken and passed when they were first licensed, with a much longer and more arcane version.

Many questions expected guides to know information that has little real use in their line of work. For example: “The physical size of the Bronx is approximately the equivalent to what European city? (a) Paris, France (b) Copenhagen, Denmark (c) London, England (d) Brussels, Belgium.” One month after the new test was required, only 36 percent of those who took it were able to correctly answer the 120 questions out of 150 needed to pass.

A chief complaint among New York City’s approximately 1,300 licensed tour guides at the time was the new testing requirement essentially revoked their licenses. According to the Guides Association of New York City, the test punished guides “without provocation, just cause, due process or misconduct.” There were no complaints on record against the conduct of a tour guide to spur such a radical overhaul of the licensing system.

“You know what is not in the test? How do you get 8th graders interested in New York?” notes Marx. She maintains the qualities which make a good tour guide – humor, warmth, kindness, presentation of information – cannot be gauged by mini-essays and multiple choice questions. While knowing facts is certainly important, a test that quizzes minuscule dates and names cannot be an accurate arbiter of excellence in tour guiding. Marx asserts that tour guides’ customers are on vacation and not “going for [a] Ph.D.” She says they want to be entertained as much as they want to be educated.

After half-a-year of bureaucratic wrangling with the DCA and the New York City Council, the Guides Association succeeded in relaxing the requirements of the new test. In January 2004, threatened with yet another City Council hearing on the test, DCA commissioner Dykstra went along with Guides Association demands that tour guides who already have licenses not be required to take the new exam. In addition, the number of questions new applicants must get right to pass has been lowered from 120 to 97, the average score of applicants who took the exam in the first months it was administered. However, those who take the exam and score 120 or above are awarded a star on the DCA’s online list of licensed tour guides. “I am starless,” says Marx, who refuses to take the exam, “which leads the reader to interpret I took the test but got less than 120.”

Sources: The Gotham Gazette (July 7, 2003), Fox News (June 30, 2003), National Public Radio (June 2, 2003), Jane Marx

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