JAIME: Welcome to Outgrowth: A Slice of Pro Beauty with your hosts Jaime Schrabeck.
ASHLEY: And Ashley Gregory Hackett. One of the most dreaded aspects of obtaining a license, the practical examination has recently come under fire for not being useful or valid.
JAIME: We discuss the value, or lack thereof, of having students take a practical exam and what changes to testing makes sense for our industry. Let’s grow together.
ASHLEY: Well, Jaime, it looks like we’ve got another hot button issue to talk about this week: the practical examination.
JAIME: I’m so glad that we’re finally tackling this subject and it makes sense to do it now because this is actually part of SB 803 in California.
ASHLEY: And that’s why I think a lot of the conversation that’s happening around practical exams is happening. It’s a conversation that’s been happening and sort of bubbling under the surface for a long time. But now that it’s part of a bill and part of a bill in such a large state, it’s shining a really strong and intense light on the practice of practical exams and whether they really have any value.
JAIME: It’s a harsh light.
ASHLEY: It is a harsh light and I know there’s obviously many sides to this, but today I’d love to talk a little bit about what the practical examination really is because I’m coming from a state where we only have a written exam.
JAIME: Almost 30 years ago when I took my practical exam in California, it was at a time when we were required to bring live models to the testing facility. And now that’s not the case and that’s because years ago the state of California gave up their own testing to adopt the NIC, the National Interstate Council’s test. And that test currently does not require live models. Whatever is done is done either on a mannequin head or on a mannequin hand.
ASHLEY: And I learned pretty much my entire school experience was either working on other students or on a model hand, like, a, an actual plastic hand. I named her Sally Handsen. So it looks like the practical exam is changing a little bit with the times, but unfortunately, it seems like the times are about 20 years ago.
JAIME: Oh, at least. And because of the physical constraints of doing a practical exam where you need to appear in person and there are so many individuals that can be tested at any given time because of the capacity of a facility, and you have to have a proctor and there are all kinds of restrictions on how many proctors to how many students. Then you have these constraints, which amount to barriers to entry, because it takes much longer to get an exam date for your practical exam than it would for getting your written exam, which could be taken in a facility at a computer.
ASHLEY: Exactly and that was my experience. I took my written exam at a computer in a locked room with eight cameras on me while I took the test, which was multiple choice. And it was a hundred questions, at least I think it was. Oh, it’s been awhile, but you just clicked a mouse, and chose your questions, and that was it. You did know actually right away whether or not you passed which was great. But I can’t imagine having to go through the stress of a situation where I have to basically show that I can do a choreographed dance, as we’ve referred to it in the past, or set up my station, or I can’t even imagine what it is that’s being judged or tested when it comes to a practical exam.
JAIME: That’s what’s so frustrating because there’s so much anxiety going into that situation that if you were to do something that would not happen in the real world with a real person, and I love some of the examples that I’ve heard. You know, we’ve talked to Wendy Cochran before. She tells the story about how her mannequin head fell off, and onto the floor during her esthetician exam, and she failed.
ASHLEY: Because her client’s head would have fallen off? Like come on, how realistic is that? Like I, first of all, my heart goes out to her because how mortifying, but that’s not something that would happen in real life. Like as an esthetician, you don’t have to worry about keeping your client’s head attached in most cases.
JAIME: So these are the kinds of things that when you hear these stories, we could laugh about it now, but that sets someone back because obviously in order to get a new test date, you’d have to reapply, and wait for that to be assigned, and that could be months and months later. And those are months where you’re not allowed to work because you don’t have any kind of provisional license in the state of California. There’s no such thing as a temporary license upon graduation. You have to wait until you test and obtain your license.
ASHLEY: I really am having a hard time wrapping my head around it. And I’m, as I’ve stated before here on the podcast and other places, I’m very fortunate to be the recipient of a reciprocity license. So after five years of practice in Illinois, I was able to apply for my California license. You came with me for that process. It was pretty easy. It was in and out. Just had to show ID and have paid a fee. And I did have to fly to California to get it. Let’s not discount that, but I did not have to do any type of examination. And so I’m very thankful for the reciprocity agreement between California and Illinois so that I can walk the walk and be licensed in places where I anticipate working. But I know that that’s not the case for everybody. And I personally had some classmates in my nail school who were coming from Indiana because Chicago was very close to the Illinois-Indiana border. And it was one of the only nail schools that had a weekend program so they would drive up from Indiana.
But unfortunately, if they wanted to work in Indiana, they actually had to go back to a beauty school in Indiana because there’s a difference in hours required, to do an additional a hundred hours in Indiana in order to be able to apply for their license. So there’s just so many hoops to jump through. I can’t imagine if on top of that, there had to be a practical examination in either state. When we talk about deregulation, and some of these bills coming forward, and talking about the reduction in hours, or just total deregulation, we have past episodes on these topics. The word barrier to entry comes up a lot. Typically, more libertarian-leaning or business-favorable Republicans will put forth these bills saying that in order to have a business in the US or in their state, you shouldn’t have to jump through all of these state-mandated hoops by getting a license or having someone say yes or no to you. In theory, I disagree with a lot of that. I think that there are some barriers to entry. My personal beliefs are that they’re more financial than anything else, but this is 100% a barrier to entry. We were talking with one of our Insiders, Rachel Messick, who told us that her experience for her practical examination was terrible and that she had heard of other people during COVID who could not work, could not get their testing because you were talking about capacity limits before. Capacity limits through COVID were nothing. They were closed. And so you’re, you’re just kind of caught in this purgatory of not being able to work and still having to stay up on all of the things you’re going to be tested on in months and months. I guess I would love to know, Jaime, what you think about the practical exam and whether it really has any value to demonstrating what you need to do in the real world with clients.
JAIME: Well if the purpose of licensure is to protect consumer health and safety, how does the written test or the practical test actually measure that? What would they be measuring? That you know how to wash your tools? That you know how to wash your hands? That you know how to like, stop a bleed? I’m not sure any of those things are what get measured. I know they don’t get measured in a practical exam. I think if you asked a client, what would you expect of an examination for us as licensed professionals? If they assume that a practical exam demonstrates how well we do something, I think that’s the biggest misunderstanding is that it does not measure our competence when it comes to the quality of the work that we do.
ASHLEY: Well, and if you think about, I’m going back to my experience with my written exam, which were types of bacteria, what an EPA registered disinfectant should do, how I should label my bottles, things like that. But then it also asked me about things like hot oil manicures and things that have just not been in vogue for a long, long time. So if a written exam can be that out of touch with what’s current and the, the actual current problems and troubleshooting that you’d have to do as a manicurist, or nail technician, or any type of beauty professional, I can only imagine how out of date a practical examination could be.
JAIME: When you think of all the different ways that we could use our products and use them safely in terms of the procedures we develop for our services, that’s one of the biggest frustrations I have with the practical exam is, is it forces you to perform the service in one particular way because the proctors, they’re not going to want to see you do something out of order. For example, if they’re expecting you to do something by virtue of how it was taught to you in a curriculum, in a beauty school that was provided by a textbook publisher. I mean like that is the way which doesn’t make any sense because in my case, if I were to go to state board and try to do the equivalent of a waterless pedicure, if I were even required to do something like that on a practical exam, I would fail not because it wasn’t safe, it’s because it’s not the procedure the proctors are anticipating, and expecting, and willing to score you on during the time that you’re there. And any sort of variable that does not fit into this mold is something that you can get dinged on. And that’s where this whole idea of having human proctors scoring you based on what they’re observing is not valid because they’re human and they’re not going to score consistently. They’re not going to be the same, even if you have individuals testing in one facility. In California, we only have two facilities. So you’d think, okay. Fewer facilities, fewer opportunities for variability in terms of scoring. But in this case, fewer facilities means fewer opportunities to actually even take the test.
ASHLEY: That blew my mind when I heard that. I mean, one facility for northern California, one facility for southern and talk about barriers to entry. I mean, these aren’t even barriers that are baked into the system and they’re barriers that nobody could potentially anticipate when a legislator is creating a bill or editing a bill like this. That there’s only two testing sites for the entire state of California that has the most population of beauty professionals in our entire country. To me, that is, I think, the biggest travesty of this whole thing. And when we were speaking to Rachel, she was talking about just having the issue of being left-handed and having the setup of her table be so set in stone that she had to continually reach across to reach her tools. And to me that’s just wrong. Like I understand when you talk about variability, and the variability between proctors and their judgment, and that sort of thing, we know if you’re not set up ergonomically correctly, you have the potential to knock things over. You have the potential to, you know, knock your mannequin head on the floor for Wendy. It seems to me that if we’re looking for a demonstration of minimum competency, that is something that can be achieved through a written test. Now that gets into a whole other can of worms, because when I took my test, it was only administered in English and I went to school with a very large, diverse Asian-American population that English was not their first language. And it was very, very difficult for those students to be able to retain the information. It came to just really being a rote memorization exercise, of memorizing what the question looked like, what the answers were on the practice test, and which button to press. Now, if we’re really looking for a minimum competency and a demonstration of that, that to me is also definitely not demonstrating that they knew the information, but they weren’t able to express it in a format that took into account the fact that they spoke a different language. And so testing in general, and I know this is your area of expertise and how people learn, and retain information, and how you can test them for it. To me, it seems like, where do we go from here? If we’re looking at potentially removing a practical exam, does just a written exam really do the job? Am I on the right track?
JAIME: That you brought up the issue of language barriers is huge and California obviously issues tests in multiple languages and even allows for interpreters, which has been a problem in the past because at times those individuals would literally be providing a means to cheat on the test because who’s to say that they were actually interpreting and not just providing answers. So that becomes a complication and that’s why there’s a minimum standard for your level of education before you even enroll in beauty school. Because if you can’t read, that’s going to be an issue. It just is in terms of literacy. So there is an expectation that you have the equivalent of a 10th grade education, GED level. We’re not expecting that you have any sort of college or anything like that. I mean, it’s not that advanced, but that minimum standard of education is necessary because so much of what we’re doing involves reading and understanding. So we would hope that if you spoke a language that you could read, but that reading literacy is not the same as literacy of spoken word. And that’s one of the challenges. Having it on a computer could be a challenge. So what you mentioned before about the testing facilities, someone might suggest, well, why not just expand the testing? Why not just have more practical exam facilities? That doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is the test is not valid. If it’s not consistent, it can’t be valid. If it doesn’t measure what is intended. it’s not valid. If it doesn’t do what the legislators believe that it needs to do in order to validate having a license in the first place, it’s not valid. So there’s so much of it that I think if legislators could actually observe a test or know how it happens, I think they’d be appalled at what they saw.
ASHLEY: Well, and if we look at, too, like if you really wanted to break it down to data and looking at the number of consumer protection complaints in states that have practical exams versus states that don’t, I think you would probably see that they’re very similar figures. Now that’s me just completely speculating, but I think, you know, Occam’s razor, all of the other things that we can kind of take into account. It’s difficult to establish a standard. And as you’ve mentioned, when there’s the variability factor of a proctor who could have their own ideas about how things should be done, they could have their own biases and their own prejudices. Those sorts of variables make it very difficult to have an identical experience, no matter who you are as the test taker. And so it’s very interesting to see how now this is something that’s been introduced and discussed where different interested parties are falling on either side of this issue. And as we’ve discussed in our consider the source episode, we’re finding that it seems like most of the chatter around this bill seems to be in support of doing away with the practical examination, except for those people who have a vested financial interest in having it continue.
JAIME: That’s exactly right. And one of their strongest arguments which, you know, makes sense on its face is that, well, this is a hands-on type of business and you really need to do the testing hands-on. And individuals, you know, they’re artists. They’re not intellectuals, so we need to balance it out somehow and we need to weight the practical exam more than the written exam so that we can accommodate individuals who aren’t as strong doing a written test. I mean, there’s just so many excuses for this. When in fact, I would ask, what have you been doing in beauty school all those hours if not demonstrating every day that you’re learning how to work with the products, how to handle the tools, how to not abuse your client? I mean, I don’t know what it is that you’re doing in beauty school that you would need to do this, as we say choreographed routine, in front of a proctor under this intense pressure of you either do it here or fail.
ASHLEY: I was just thinking the same thing. Like what is it that you’re doing in beauty school if not learning? I mean, even at its worst, when we hear about the criticisms of beauty school and how they really only teach to the test because pass-fail rates help them get more students. Okay, well, if they’re teaching to the test, then you should know exactly what you need to be doing in the practical exam and exactly what you should know for your written exam. That’s not always the case, obviously different schools, different variables, different programs. But where I think we can all kind of coalesce around the idea that you’re not necessarily prepared to take clients and work in a salon immediately after getting your license because you’ve really only learned what you need to do to pass a test. Hopefully, most beauty schools are preparing you for the real world and showing you the types of services and skills you need to build in order to be a working member of our industry that is productive, and supported, and all of those things. But I guess when you think about demonstrating something that is kind of amorphous like this, there is going to just be a built-in issue with any kind of test that you put up against these standards, because beauty is subjective, of course, but the law is not. And even if we were to break it down to its simplest parts, can you do the things that the law requires, yes or no? I don’t think you necessarily have to come in with a kit, and a model, and a mannequin head, and 15 tools to prove that. And it just becomes a thing that generates more and more income, and it’s more hoops that you have to jump through, and the people that are keeping this practice in place are the ones who are directly financially benefiting from it. So how is that right?
JAIME: It’s not. And the big tip off to how invalid this whole process is, is that if the school has to teach the exam way versus the salon way, like learn it this way so that you can pass your test, but once you get in the salon, don’t worry about any of that. Do it this way. That’s the biggest signal that what’s being taught may be two different things when it shouldn’t be. Why not just teach to the laws and regulations, what you need to know to be responsible and compliant with the health and safety regulations, and let that be what guides you when you do obtain your license? Now the testing is obviously very high stakes because without passing the test, you don’t obtain your license, but why create two different high stakes situations, the written and the practical, when one would suffice?
ASHLEY: Agreed, and there are, I was trying to look up how many states do require a practical examination before we recorded, and I wasn’t able to get a super clear picture because unfortunately, all of the sources I was looking at were either beauty school sources or legislative sources, and they didn’t have a date on them to show if they were current. That could be changing, you know, as it is right now in California, or at least in flux, in discussion. So I would wonder if we were to kick this can down the road a bit and look at eliminating a practical examination, would that potentially affect some of the reciprocity agreements that are in place or future reciprocity agreements with states where one state has a practical examination requirement and one state does not. Just speaking from my own experience here in Illinois not having a practical examination, the practical exam requirement is waived through five years of experience. You know, I’m making air quotes now because that’s really kind of how they break it down. There’s so many factors and things to think about here that it seems like to me the easiest solution would be to eliminate the practical examination. You could potentially, to make everybody happy, beef up the written examination and just make it longer or cover more of those topics that are covered in the practical exam. But that way you don’t have to try to push everybody through this funnel of going to just two test sites and trying to schedule for months and months out. There are actual barriers to entry to this industry that we can do away with without affecting the safety of the public or the skill level of the people we’re graduating from beauty school.
JAIME: When you mentioned the complaints earlier, every one of those consumer complaints, as long as they’re being made against someone who’s actually licensed rather than someone who’s working unlicensed, that licensed person has passed the written and the practical test
JAIME: In the state of California. So it’s not that they didn’t demonstrate the minimum competency. They must have, otherwise they wouldn’t have a license.
JAIME: But what they haven’t done is held themselves accountable or they’ve had, you know, a horrendous lapse in judgment, or had an accident, or something that resulted, because you know accidents do happen, in someone getting injured. And so when we look at this whole thing and take a step back, one of the things that I think we haven’t focused on is that because of this idea that you can have the license in another state and have so many years of experience, again, air quotes that you’ve held your license long enough and you haven’t had a disciplinary action, really. It’s not that you’ve been working. It’s not that you have so many hours of experience or have seen so many clients. It’s that you’ve held your license for a certain amount of time. California is also proposing in SB 803, and by California, I mean, the senator who’s proposing SBA 803, that we actually do away with the minimum time requirement. In other words, you could get reciprocity from California by virtue of holding a license, no matter how long you’ve held it. That would upend quite a bit because then you could conceivably go out of state to a beauty school, get licensed, and immediately also get licensed in California without having to wait any period of time.
ASHLEY: Yeah. Huge dominoes potentially falling with the passage of this bill, if passed as written today, and I understand the hullabaloo. I think we as an industry are very reactive and we love to maintain the status quo because, hey, if I had to do it, you should too. Which is a really, I think, damaged way of looking at our industry, because if we don’t keep up with not just the trends in our industry, but trends in education. It seems like that part of our industry is very vocal in maintaining the status quo, but then talking out of the other side of their mouth and saying, I can never fill my department. I can never find qualified, licensed applicants. I can never find, you know, we had to do away with our nail department, or we don’t have any estheticians or whatever because we can never find anybody. Or they’re just willing to go out on their own immediately because it’s exhausting to go through this process of having to pay for, go through school, whether you’re working or not, doing it full-time or part-time, and then trying to get a job, and going through all of that application process, and then realizing that maybe you don’t know as much as you thought you did. So you have to assist and you’re making minimum wage. Like there is a lot to this process. And if we can just remove something that is at its core, just a pain in the butt, instead of something that’s lifting you up and helping you into the next step, why not do that? It’s like this weird rite of passage that, oh, I had to suffer, so you do, too. That’s a really strange way, I think, of looking at our industry and it just holds people down instead of being that rising tide, lifting all the boats. And really helping ourselves in the process by creating more colleagues, being able to hire, being able to staff and having a larger, more competent industry because you don’t have to wait months and months from when you finish school to when you’re actually tested on the information. To me, it makes sense. I understand I’m coming from a state that doesn’t have a practical exam, so take that for what it’s worth, but it is an interesting conversation and I’m very glad we’re having it.
JAIME: I am too. And when you mentioned changes to the written exam, and you mentioned having to identify bacteria. We’ve talked before about how we’re not training future chemists, future biologists. That’s not what beauty school is about. And if we could really focus on those topics that are most relevant to health and safety, and ensure that students understand what’s most relevant, and hopefully would promise to actually abide by the rules and regulations by virtue of getting their license, right? It’s, it’s sort of this implicit. It’s not like the doctor’s Hippocratic oath, but in holding a license, you are accountable for doing your work safely, because if you’re not doing it that way, eventually, you know, something will happen and someone will complain. And that’s where the complaints come, where, you know, people get infections and that kind of thing. But in the meanwhile, why not understand that we’re not climbing a ladder here. We’re not really elevating ourselves as much as we’re like blowing up the bridge behind us because we’re all sort of going down this path. And if we were to encourage more people to participate in our industry by eliminating this particular barrier, I think that it would give more responsibility to schools and salons to actually train technique.
JAIME: That’s what they should be doing is training technique.
ASHLEY: I wholeheartedly agree. It just creates more prepared and more robust beauty professionals than having to worry about your mannequin head falling on the floor. Um, I mean, talk about having two sets of standards and two different ways of doing things. It’s just taking up room in your head that could be filled with things that are relevant to what we actually do. But I would love to hear what our listeners have to say about this. And, of course, sound off on our social media, especially our Instagram, which is where most of the conversation is happening. Because I think a lot of our listeners and a lot of those who haven’t yet listened to our podcast would be surprised to know that SBA 803 actually talks about this and addresses the practical exam. A lot of the conversation around this bill and this practice is mired in the entire thing about deregulating haircutting, and that’s really dominated the conversation. There’s so many other important things in this bill that should really be paid attention to and given the shrift that it deserves.
JAIME: As always, let’s have that conversation, especially in Instagram. And you can find us at @outgrowthpodcast.
ASHLEY: Excellent. Well, if you liked this episode, if you found any value in it, we would love to have you leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can do that with just one click. Visit bit.ly/outgrowthpodcast.
JAIME: Ashley, until next time, let’s do some more digging on some of the intricacies of SB 803. We talked about how, you know, the parts of this bill would be worthy of their own standalone episodes and the practical exam is one of them.
ASHLEY: And here we are a standalone episode just about this issue, but more to come on that subject. And until next week, everybody, be smart.
JAIME: Be safe.