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CSS danger alert

Published Dec 20, 2016 02:21am

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The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) — in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed — has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: it lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good.

Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: if the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case.

Second, the observation: as one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the relatively mediocre succeed. This observation so intrigued me that over the past two years I have investigated the experience of students who appeared in the examination.

Here is an example to set one thinking: a student went into the CSS examination with a 94th percentile ranking in the SAT writing test, an A+ in a BA writing and communication course, an 85th percentile ranking in the GRE essay test, and a 100 percentile ranking in the TOEFL. In the CSS English essay he was awarded 12 marks out of 100 and failed. In contrast, a number of students who found writing a coherent paragraph difficult, cleared the essay.


Civil service exams are not testing for intelligence.


Something was clearly amiss and my investigations led to the following hypothesis: an examination can be strictly meritocratic and extremely rigorous and yet be entirely misleading at the same time.

To pass judgement on an examination one has to know what it is testing for. I can assert with some confidence that the CSS examination is not testing for intelligence or creativity or command over language. Rather, I sense it is testing for obedience to a metanarrative, loyalty to an officially sanctioned ideology, and the forswearing of all questioning of the status quo.

I found that a four-year undergraduate education, even from the best institutions in the country, is not enough to sit the CSS examination successfully. Close to another year of preparation in a coaching centre is needed where students are drilled in what is considered acceptable in answers to typical questions, what authorities are to be cited prominently or avoided at all costs, and even what part of the text is to be highlighted.

Then there are the questions themselves about which candidates are instructed not to express their own opinions. Rather, they are required to demonstrate knowledge of the acceptable answers and reproduce them without error in the required format. Many questions are formulated in ways that leave room for only one acceptable and safe answer.

Smart students entered the year of coaching aware of what it entailed but with the confidence that they could play along to pass the examination and then revert to what they really believed in. While some did survive, many emerged with their personalities altered. This was indoctrination at its most effective. I could not help thinking of the CSS academies as upscale equivalents of the much-criticised madressahs. All that might be separating the two would be the back-and-forth swaying.

To summarise: for some years now the examination is selecting those who will ‘do or die’ not those who would ‘reason why’ and I suspect this is being done consciously. I hope I am wrong but to prove that one would need to open up the system for review. I can offer the following suggestion. First, all those who passed the most recent written examination should be administered a standard international test, ideally at the GRE level since the applicants have completed their undergraduate education. Given that there are only 200 applicants this would be quite affordable and would provide an immediate assessment against a global benchmark of the ability of individuals being inducted into the civil service.

Second, the CSS examination papers and a random sample of answer books of successful candidates should be given to an international panel representing the selection boards of a number of countries, like the UK, France and Singapore, with highly regarded civil services. The panel would be charged with identifying weaknesses in the CSS selection system and with recommending appropriate changes.

The intellectual calibre of the civil service is a key attribute in its ability to implement the programmes on which the future of the country depends. It is dangerous to start off forcing applicants to dissemble to enter the service and necessary to ensure that their selection screens for the skills and talents need to be effective. A genuine commitment to civil service reform would be alert to these dangers.

The writer moderates The South Asian Idea Weblog.

Published in Dawn December 20th, 2016


The writer has served as dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (75) Closed



AHMAD Dec 20, 2016 06:26am

Mr. Anjum Altaf, how do you think that we must be selected by foreigner. Are we not capable to qualify our candidates for such competitive examination?

Gohar Altaf Dec 20, 2016 07:08am

Cogent, correct and indisputable.

ahmad Dec 20, 2016 07:20am

agree with the author. however we dont even need to use English. i am living in Korea, and hardly anyone apart from english medium school children speak and understand English. and is same for other developed countries.and yes Korea is developed country.

sanjesh kumar Dec 20, 2016 07:50am

Well assessed. FPSC should be held accountable and responsible as dubious and unjustified results are being produced. Candidates should be provided right to see his papers after marking so that transparency and justification of FPSC would be evident. FPSC is playing with the future of hardworking and deserving candidates. Results are inconsistent with the overall performance of the Pakistani students in all exams and at every forum. What an assessment and checking by the FPSC examiners that toppers/passers of their previous year exam are declared failure. There is a need for independent inquiry into the matter.

hani Dec 20, 2016 08:27am

So you want further assessment of those scantly selectees 200 ?? Odd

hani Dec 20, 2016 08:34am

Css is all about luck and prayers... it's a certain gambling in which a shinning student of high grades may arrive in failures whilein a below par candidate parts in civil services...this is agony which has ruined many lives consciously or unconciously

umer Dec 20, 2016 08:37am

I sat the CSS exam in 2000. I received more than 60 per cent marks in optional papers of Indian history and International Relations, Forestry etc and all the compulsory subjects except Current Affair where I got 18 out of 100 marks despite the fact that I had attempted all the five questions asked. It is not rocket science to figure out that a candidate who is able to get more than 60 per cent marks in Indian History and International Relations should, at least be able to pass the paper of Current Affairs. Perhaps someone didn't like what I had to say about certain topics.

hani Dec 20, 2016 08:45am

An aspirant who secures 700 plus is being failed within a short span of 2 marks or 1... who on earth can undo it whereby assuring the hapless life of a candidate who will never touch a book rather to hold a rope for immolation... things are terribly wrong here and these are supposed to be..... afsos

ihtisham Dec 20, 2016 09:08am

thumbs up. the important thing is the selection process should be based on logical and critical thinking. I also appeared in CSS 2016 and just miss it by 3 marks.

parchi Dec 20, 2016 09:13am

FPSC has recently published Examiners' Reports for CE 2015 and CE 2016. The issues that the exam-checkers have raised are remarkable. The grading scheme that they have shared is also helpful for candidates. I have personally taken the exam and passed it, but left the services somehow. However, I think the exams somehow judge your intellectual ability and reasoning as well as your memory. Just take a look at the last couple years' papers and you would guess that these are not attemptable by merely memorizing the contents; rather one has to invoke his own analytical abilities in answering different questions. So, it is my humble opinion that the fault does not totally lie with FPSC's examination standards, as it is currently doing a good job, but with the students' reasoning ability. I suggest the aspirants to stop joining academies and prepare for the exam on their own, as academies would only badly impact their approach and would sadly make them attempt the exams in a below-par manner.

Shah HUSSAIN Dec 20, 2016 09:24am

Very insightful article The Civil Service Pakistan is successor to British Indian ICS,which effectively ruled India , Pakistan, Bangla Desh, FATA, parts of Balochistan etc. The effectiveness of that civil service flowed from two factors training and administrative autonomy (read no political interference).In Alice in the Wonderland, when the girl,at the cross-ŕoads, asks the squirrel, where the road leads? The squirrel asks where do you want to go? The girl says she does not know. The squirel replies then it ďoes not matter which road you take. Same is the case with our civil service. The world and management styles have both changed drastically. Specilization is the buzword. But not in Pakistan where a generalist officer will head hospitals, lead coporations, manage projects. The National Commission on Governance Reforms of Dr. Ishrat Hussain has suggested radical reforms in intake, training, grooming , promotion of the civil servants but have not seen the light of the day.

Faisal Dec 20, 2016 09:25am

unlike GRE, SAT and TOEFL, the essay in CSS is more of analytical type rather than using complicated vocabulary words and accurate grammar.

ZIA IQBAL KHAN Dec 20, 2016 09:41am

This author has estimated the very accurate way. I just praise him for such a deep and true vision of CSS. I have been appeared twice in CSS and failed in essay writing although I have a good knowledge about this kind of examinations.

Secular Pathan Dec 20, 2016 09:50am

Thank you so much for writing this, finally someone noticed the cunning and decadent system of exams. I personally got a first class engineering degree from a university that is among top 100 in the world and spent many years there, even English people used to praise my English and analytical thinking. I got 7.5 in IELTS and 4.5/6 in GRE Analytical Writing. Professors in some of the best universities in the world are taking interest in me but the mighty CSS exams gave me 14 in Essay and failed me in Islamiat as well, despite me acghieving above 90% in O Levels Islamiat and 80% in English Language. Many brilliant people fail this exam and mediocre, robots that are easily indoctrinated pass it.

saddam rajput Dec 20, 2016 09:54am

@hani , well said ma'm, but i would ask what to do? should you have any sorta solution or suggestion to give, if yes, then waiting. gratitude

Secular Pathan Dec 20, 2016 10:01am

They fail people by design, one year they target Essay, the next year they target Precis paper. How is it possible that one year about 49% people pass Essay (2014) and the next year the percentage drops significantly? How? They want to select few people for interview and the type of people who follow the typical narrative which is destroying us and keeping us backwards in the world

ali Dec 20, 2016 10:02am

view. I did appear in CE-2016 and aspiring for css 2017.I reckon author's point of view. Recently I take mock exams in a css academy and my views on "Not-traditional threat of water from India" My whole answer was rejected by the academy examiner saying that it does not fit our state narrative. Mreover, you are not appearing for IAS (Indian Administrative services) Exams this Pakistan's CSS

saddam rajput Dec 20, 2016 10:03am

@parchi , some tips/suggestions are needed by you.

Sumara Ibrar Dec 20, 2016 10:28am

Shocked to know that our education system at such a higher level is has same orthodox.

GOvernment Official Dec 20, 2016 11:04am

The issue remains within the setup for preparation and checking of the exam papers. If the examiner's ability/knowledge has not developed over time then those participants who might come up with new analysis put forward nicely can be misread and penalized. Also important is that what sort of employees government is seeking for? If it is those who are at best mediocre at policy to be governed by the mediocre senior level then the system is already inclined at choosing them. The best example is our specialized ministries, e.g. finance, external affairs, commerce, taxation and planning. None of them have the capacity to make and conduct indigenous policies as well as to implement borrowed policies while effectively plugging the loopholes. So, the CSS system provides the day to day labor with horizontal and vertical mobility that only depends on management of day to day measures regardless of any direction that should be the part of a CSP officer's job description.

Saleemullah Khattak Dec 20, 2016 12:02pm

I have once attempted C.S.S. written examination. I passed essay paper, securing 53 marks, but surprisingly i got 28 marks in grammar and composition. Had my grammar been incorrect, how did i got through essay paper?. This question hounds me for years.After my first failed attempt, i abdicated my venture for other hard working candidates and never attempted a second time.

mustajabalam Dec 20, 2016 12:04pm

not only study but date sheet of css is a big cause of failure they take exams of 11 subjects in less then one week 6 hour writing . and they you have to wait for 7 months for results

Usman Dec 20, 2016 12:18pm

I am really happy for this outstanding efforts to motiveness for aware nation ..hope for great trial in respect of this intellectual effort. May every one know about loyality and reality. Personally its very fabulous.

Hafsa Dec 20, 2016 12:25pm

Ever grateful to the writer for reviewing the css examination and bringing out the actual truth behind the dismal results. I totally agree with the writer becoz FPSC is just giving a distorted version abt a dismal education system. However this is not true and many best of the best candidates are failed and many mediocres passed only becoz the body is selecting candidates on the age old practices. I myself am a victim of the recent examination where the examiner failed me from just 1 mark in a subject whereas my overall score was quite good. And the irony is that i am already CSS qualified and selected by the same organization and 6 years into civil service. I just wanted to improve my position. No doubt the suggestions of the authors should be considered as some new ideas can over haul the age old system and maybe FPSC will stop blaming the candidates of being incompetent and not well educated. They should stop blaming the education system and need to overhaul their conduct of exam and the checking and selection process. It no longer is the most transparent exam.

Blurle Dec 20, 2016 12:30pm

Very true.

WASEB Dec 20, 2016 12:37pm

Thanks a lot for writing this piece. Memory and writing speed ! That is the assessment system in Pakistan. This article is equally relevant for PPSC as well.

Shakeel Ahmad Dec 20, 2016 01:16pm

@umer Unfortunately, it is not necessary that a person who scores well in one paper may get good marks in another one. There is much difference in the marking of optional and compulsory papers. Optional papers are gauged by your power of retention of relevant materials, while, in compulsory paper, only the creative aspirants are passed. I too got good marks in optionals but could not score well in compulsory.

Secular Pathan Dec 20, 2016 01:27pm

How come toppers in CSS fail in the next exam? How come serving PSP officers fail CSS when they want to change groups?

Ali Vazir Dec 20, 2016 01:35pm

An excellent article with excellent suggestion. Yes, we desperately need to have competent, responsible and creative lot among our civil servants. Plus I would always urge to make the FPSC and Provincial Commissions, totally independent and competent who would enforce testing and screening of all inductions, as well as promotions in the civil bureaucracy.

ashar Dec 20, 2016 01:49pm

Actually they have been finally made realize that they are after all servants of Feudal minded politicians no matter how centrally superior they are to others.

ashar Dec 20, 2016 01:49pm

Its a fraternity based on interests not service

Deendayal Dec 20, 2016 02:00pm

Pakistan is yet to pass a law on right to information act. Candidates who fail the examination at CSS,should have the right to reassess the paper,as is the practice at the graduation level. Anyway,expressing your opinion is not welcomed . God has given us a brain,but there are various laws to muzzle your opinion. Only privileged people can express their opinion. In India,failed candidates select the Right to Information Act,to go for reassessment in a paper which they have failed.

Junaid Dec 20, 2016 02:14pm

@AHMAD Yes, we are not.

RAVIAN Dec 20, 2016 02:51pm

Civil Services (and civil servants) have failed to deliver as an institution. Just go to any Government department, essentially run by a civil servant, and you will be duly humiliated, made to pay bribes and wait endlessly to have your work done. It is time to ditch the civil service and bring a new merit based system, which hires specialized persons for specialized jobs.

MUhammad Awais Dec 20, 2016 02:52pm

I partly agree with Anjum on the selection process and would like to give my humble experience and observation while working with them since 12 years. I can remember those on tips who had talent/skill-set and approach, necessary to execute the program to guide the future of the country; remaining bul????. We have to differentiate cunning and smart, wise and crammer, honest and criminal, wealthy and settled. I experienced those who can write a long digest report with tons of annex but unable to resolve a simple dispute. Sorry to say; passing or failing in CSS producing a worst slot that one is unable to justify ever. A letter from authorities has been disseminated to all regardless their concerns or not is one example of their highly intellectualism. tons of examples here Anjum, one unable to count even. Let it be story of newspapers which will die soon like its predecessors.....

Amlish Dec 20, 2016 03:07pm

Absolutely spot-on.

Bareerah Fatima Dec 20, 2016 03:24pm

Absolutely right. You can check the level of intellect of most the newly recruited and mid level bureaucrats for confrimation. Most are mediocre. Though there are fewer examples of intellect but it again comes in time, because they are superior services they do not suffer from natural backlash and atrocities as general government employees.

AHMED SHAH Dec 20, 2016 04:02pm

A completely wrong analysis. While preparing for css exam, I asked a senior what "creativity" actually was, and he simply said the ability to transfer your thoughts onto paper. The trick is in the thought. A css essay tests a person's understanding of an issue and how a standpoint is developed, and justified. I did that and passed it in the first go. And trust me nobody indoctrinated me. Yes, the only things you can't criticize are religion/sect, ethnic groups or the existence or ideology of Pak. Honestly if you are to criticize Pak's existence, why are you trying to become its civil servant in the first place?

beelal Dec 20, 2016 04:16pm

@AHMAD there is a difference between selection of candidates and an expert analysis on the selection criteria. Author did not say the selection should be made by 'foreigners'. If we were able to properly conduct such competitive examination there would have been no need for publishing this article.

Dr Jamal Dec 20, 2016 04:55pm

Time came to produce "Intelligent Disobedient Officers" rather than "Yours Obediently Sir" type civil servants.

Dr Jamal Dec 20, 2016 04:58pm

@ahmad All languages to merge better to adopt English to get benefit from Global opportunities.

Adnan Dec 20, 2016 05:12pm

May be better to just replace the test with a standard IQ test or to outsource the testing to an international organisation with experience in such tests.

Imran Dec 20, 2016 06:34pm

Mr Writer I have few issues with the theory you mentioned in article. first you mentioned a student who Scored 100 in TOEFL is failed with 12 marks then answer to this question is there are multiple books and resources available which if you read then you can score 100% that is not the way some one judged secondly you couple of time t about GRE to adop that way of testing then to let some reader clear about GRE as ngineer this GRE is only for engineering students not for all so CSS seekers who are enginnering background will beneficial from it but all seekers with Medical experience.

AJax Dec 20, 2016 06:44pm

No facts provided just a few tentative guesses. Poor article. Author should have spent more time investigating the actual cause rather than blurt out speculations which don't help anyone

Usman Dec 20, 2016 07:28pm

I am very helpful for this knowledge .a good words always appeared as a voice of truth as intimated here in this article.God bless you sir.

iftikhar ahmed Dec 20, 2016 07:31pm

The result of CSS 2016 is indicator of so many things. Has our education system has really deteriorated? Certain things are attached to this examination which students do not consider while sitting in the examination. The examiners and paper setters are responsible for the low percentage of pass candidates in this esteemed examination. Let us take the case of English, according to FPSC report more than 92% candidates got failed in English especially in Essay paper. It reflects the level of candidates. Essay is written analytically, the failure percentage points out those students are unable to think critically. In composition paper vigorous grammar knowledge is tested. English grammar, Language and analogy of words are tested at a time as the selectee is to teach the grammar.

pakistani Dec 20, 2016 07:41pm

Sir, you have raised some important issues that FPSC should probably look into. Thank you for the article.

Ali mardan Dec 20, 2016 07:44pm

very well written

mUstafa Dec 20, 2016 07:49pm

@sanjesh kumar true said

mUstafa Dec 20, 2016 07:59pm

@Hafsa true said

Tusawar Hussain Dec 20, 2016 07:59pm

More than excellent. leaving no loophole

Inzy Dec 20, 2016 08:44pm

Pathetic civil services

Asim Dec 20, 2016 08:59pm

Part 2:

It is not uncommon to find passed candidates fail the exam very next year (they appear in the exam either to improve their group or the result is pending). And guess what, they have 700+ marks, and they comprehensively stamp their authority. Unfortunately, they fall victim to FPSC's butchering policy of Essay & Precis exams. For instance, the topper of the 2014 exam failed in the subsequent year

The problem with the exam is therefore the deliberate targeting policy of FPSC, which means that instead of the examiners, the failing policy is carried out by the Commission once the checked scripts are back. Students must have access to their Essay and Precis exams. This is because they are intentionally failed by the guys at FPSC in order to keep a low number of qualified candidates.

I am appearing in 2017. I hope they put their house in order by then! It pains me to see wonderfully talented and brilliant people fail this ordinary exam only because of luck!

muhammad shakeel Dec 20, 2016 09:25pm

Same case in ISSB......

Maaz Pasha Dec 20, 2016 11:16pm

@umer ..ur last comment says everything...its stero fype answers they want not ur own opinion...simple

Maaz Pasha Dec 20, 2016 11:17pm

@hani ...LUCK AND PRAYERS . what is this non sense....u cant drive a car with luck and prayer..cant use compute with luck and prayers... u cant pass ACCA or CA exams with luck n prayers .. CSS exames r total rubbish

Qasim Dec 20, 2016 11:57pm

The problem surely lies in our education system. I stayed at the hostel of a famous university of Punjab while I sat the css exam. Every night we discussed that day's question paper with students of final year and even the graduate ones, and to my astonishment, only a few were even able to understand the vocabulary of question. However, there is no irony over such a situation in a country where university students stop by the newspaper stand onlyto stalk the women in advertisements and no to bother the headlines.

Hamid Shafiq Dec 21, 2016 12:10am

There is no need of CSS exams because it's better that every institution should recruit with own requirement what they want from candidate? What type of knowledge which necessary for their position? After CSS many people want only civil govt, police, foreign service no body want to go PR and post office because there is so much difference among these civil servants.

Rafi Kakar Dec 21, 2016 01:07am

I agree with most of what the writer has said in the article. Would like to substantiate his argument with a personal example: I attempted the exam in 2013 and failed English essay, securing only 15 mark. Now, I don't mean to say that I was a super brilliant student. And I wasn't shocked at my failure either. What shocked me was the margin of failure i.e I secured only 15 marks in English essay. I am sharing some facts to explain why my friends and I were shocked: I was a gold medalist at GC and went on to win Rhodes scholarship to study at the university of Oxford. I completed two Masters degress from Oxford University. I don't intend to claim that I have great command over English language. It would still have made send had I secured marks in the 30s or 20s. However, the fact that I secured only 15 makes came as a shock to me and my friends. To this date, I can't make sense of it.

RAfi Graduate Dec 21, 2016 01:39am

I have read the above article and went through most of the comments , it just really discouraged me ,as i was looking forward for CSS 2k17 preparation . Is it a clear clue for fresh graduates like us to stop preparing for the so called "competitive" exam???

mG @Vienna Dec 21, 2016 05:45am

Anjum, great to see your regular contributions- analytical, insightful, thought provoking. However, are you making a wrong assumption that government is looking for creative, analytical, thoughtful, deliverers of governance and development? Perhaps the government is looking for compliant, loyal, conforming, status-quoists. A test can be rigorous and meritocratic but what also matters is what you are testing for.

Iram Dec 21, 2016 06:42am

@ihtisham excellent analysis.

Iram Dec 21, 2016 06:51am

To say that CSS is about luck is correct to the extent that it is true of all exams. CSS expects some basic writing, descriptive, analytical communications skills from all candidates. If you are missing one of them, you are likely to get out ofor themail race.

At the moment, CSS is one of the very few forum for means for merit-based selection, and FPSC needs to be complimented for this achievement.

inzmam Dec 21, 2016 07:08am

Then our country doesn't need creative and self minded people they only want deto copies to hold status quo..

Shoaib Dec 21, 2016 09:17am

Agreed, there is need of overhauling the training and evaluation systems both at the civil and military sides.

Jawwad Dec 21, 2016 11:33am

CSS Exams check only Who are the best Copier & Pasters. The system is based on the selection of persons who can Re-Produce the best but lack the intellect to create something. Whatsoever our Govt needs such people our Govt needs the selected people should follow as advised & after all the selected people are restrained to work under political supremacy.

zafar Dec 21, 2016 12:20pm

The selection procedure including paper marking schemes and other criteria till final selection should be probed by independent foreign experts.

Ahsan Altaf Abbasi Dec 21, 2016 03:31pm

With all due respect sir, tears were about to trickle down when I finished reading your opinion. 1. Why don't you first write against the system, chairman and members of board who are less qualified. Let me remind you FPSC chairman was a former PCB director and passed his BA in 3rd division. 2. Do you really think that those 200 copies are worth equivalent to the standard of the countries you took the name of. Fallout will be all 200 could fail. 3. There must be a difference between GRE and Civil Services.

Zufishan Ghani Dec 21, 2016 07:28pm

@Shakeel Ahmad: "Optional papers are gauged by your power of retention of relevant materials, while, in compulsory paper, only the creative aspirants are passed."

I'm left gripped by incomprehension regarding your intended meaning of this view. CREATIVITY HAS GOT NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY FACET OF CSS EXAMS. NOT AT ALL! Still one speculates, how can creativity be weaved into answering questions of Physics, or Mathematics, or even Environmental Science, all of which are compulsories?

Please elucidate your kind opinion.

Zufishan Ghani Dec 21, 2016 07:46pm

@Rafi Kakar Nothing but a smile...:-) and one more :-)

Moona Dec 21, 2016 09:55pm

Is Dr. Altaf still the Dean at LUMS? He left a while ago.

Moona Dec 21, 2016 09:57pm

Very true.

Syed F. Hussaini Dec 22, 2016 06:08am

Superior to whom--the people?

Or, is it that the rest of the services were inferior?

Azhar Dec 22, 2016 10:28am

It seems that CSS is doing its job. It was never meant to select the creative and inspiring. It is successfully getting hold of the mediocre to collude with political masters for rent seeking and to keep the general public under the elite’s yoke. This is exactly as the British had envisaged post-1857 “mutiny”.

Ali Imran Dec 22, 2016 07:02pm

Well, the mentioned claims can only get a stronger base if you cite some of the students who have successfully passed CSS. Otherwise, these are just dry claims.