Southwest Gas Corporation saving time and improving security with online assessments

Background

Founded in 1931, Southwest Gas Corporation purchases, distributes and transports natural gas to residential, commercial and industrial customers in the southwestern United States. The company’s more than 2,400 employees serve nearly 2 million customers in Arizona, Nevada and portions of California.

Training and Certifying Employees

Southwest Gas Corporation uses Questionmark's assessment management system to test its employees and contractors on construction, operations of gas pipelines and operations. To ensure all employees are trained and qualified, the company’s training department combines classroom testing and field training. Training is mandatory and can take place as little as once a year for five years or as much as once a month every six months, depending on the task. Course topics include field welding, pipe joining, and operator manuals. Whether training takes the form of a one-day class, a 12-week program, or something in between, it almost always involves a combination of classroom and field testing in which employees and contractors must physically implement what they are learning in the classroom. These evaluations take place in welding shops or emergency response centers which are re-creations of small towns experiencing real-life emergency situations.

High-Stakes Tests

Employees go through training several times a year and must pass their examinations with a score of 80 percent in order to keep their jobs. Southwest Gas Corporation has between 300 to 400 tests with 10 to 60 questions per test. “I, along with our subject matter experts and the management team, create all the questions,” says Grace McKinley, Supervisor – Training and Development at Southwest Gas Corporation. “We are using principles of criterion referenced testing and our operations manual requirements in putting together our newer tests, and we plan on utilizing Questionmark Live™ to create some of our questions.” Classroom tests are mostly multiple choice, but the company may implement multiple response questions in the future.

Saving Time, Improving Security

According to McKinley, the company administers over 8,500 tests a year. Before deploying Questionmark in 2007, Southwest Gas Corporation devoted a great deal of time and resources to creating and managing manual tests.

“We deployed Questionmark because the amount of work and time that was being devoted to manually creating tests—making sure they were always locked up, manually corrected and saved on spreadsheets to be analyzed and then shredded—was neither cost nor time efficient,” says McKinley. Securing the paper assessments was a concern. The company suspected that contractors had test questions and answers memorized before taking the exam. Since the tests were manual it was impossible to randomize questions, McKinley said, and it took too a long time to publish different versions of the same exam.

“We needed to address these problems, and one of the first steps we took was to turn to Questionmark,” McKinley explains. Questionmark -- together with the Questionmark Secure, which locks down participants’ desktops to eliminate task switching -- provides an array of security options to protect the integrity of the company’s tests. “We now have reliable software that ensures us that our high-stakes tests are safe and secure,” says McKinley. “We’re able to randomize questions, prevent tests from being copied and score assessments immediately. Another thing I appreciate about Questionmark is the reporting, which gives us statistics to analyze the results of our assessments and evaluate the performance of our questions.”

Improving Assessment Quality

McKinley observes that Questionmark not only has helped the company secure their high stakes tests and save time and money; it has also helped trainers create stronger assessments. “Aside from testing the employees and ensuring test security, Questionmark also allows us to appraise the test questions to ensure they are worded correctly and can be validated,” McKinley adds. “It also allows students to evaluate training and instructors. This helps us understand what we can change and do differently when it comes to training our instructors and advising our subject matter experts.”