Certification Exams: Changing for the Better?

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Over the past five years, becoming vendor-certified has been the goal of many computer professionals. Why did the demand for vendor certification grow to such high levels when such credentials were almost nonexistent for the previous 25 years? The basic answer is really quite simple: Computer technicians wanted an easy way to prove their skills, and employers wanted an easy way to determine who possessed the skills needed to perform the job. Yes, we can probably blame the infamous period known as the dot-com era for driving this demand to very high levels, but this era may have also helped reveal the problems of using simplistic testing (multiple-choice) to determine if a person truly possessed the appropriate skills.

It was only a few years ago that anyone who could memorize answers to typical questions asked on certification exams could gain certification. A few high school students were written about in the media as being among the youngest ever to receive the coveted Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) credential. Other individuals had never worked in information systems but were able to read books and attend “boot camps” to gain the knowledge necessary to pass the certification exams. Suddenly, employers were interviewing individuals who were certified, but often had no experience whatsoever applying technical skills in a real computing environment. Since it was difficult to find technical professionals during the dot-com era, many employers found themselves hiring candidates who did not truly meet the actual skill requirements and providing these individuals with on-the-job training. Almost immediately, employers were again asking vendors for help identifying individuals who truly possessed the skills necessary to perform the various jobs of technical professionals. The solution of choice for an ever-increasing number of vendors is performance-based testing (also referred to as performance-based assessment).

Did vendors invent the idea of performance-based testing to improve assessment results? No! Actually, academia recognized the problems of traditional testing quite some time ago and created the performance-based testing discipline. In fact, academia has a second name for performance-based testing―“authentic assessment.” Academia has also recognized the need to match performance-based testing with performance-based education because individuals must first be taught hands-on skills before being assessed on whether they possess those skills or not.

While performance-based testing is not perfect, it does help provide a better assessment of an individual’s skills. Performance-based testing requires individuals to perform hands-on tasks to demonstrate their skills. Traditional testing typically requires only the answering of multiple-choice, true/false or fill-in-the-blank responses. As we have seen, this form of testing does not provide a very clear assessment of an individual’s skills. Since performance-based testing requires individuals to demonstrate their skills through the performance of many hands-on tasks faced within a real working environment, the assessment of an individual’s skills is much more accurate and complete.

When performance-based testing is combined with traditional testing, the picture of an individual’s skills is more complete. Sometimes it is necessary to combine both traditional and performance-based testing into an assessment to determine a person’s true skill level. All testing cannot be performance-based, just as all training cannot focus on only one method. A blended approach is almost always the most complete solution. For this reason, you will undoubtedly find yourself being assessed in multiple ways.

Although not much has been written about a third method of assessment, it is available to vendors who determine it is needed. Verbal interviews conducted by a testing center could be combined with performance-based and traditional testing to provide a third element of assessment. Currently, verbal interviews are limited to employers during the employment interviewing process. While employer’s verbal interviews are certainly part of an individual’s skill assessment, they could also be used as part of the formal certification process.

There is no doubt that the combination of performance-based, traditional and verbal testing will greatly enhance the assessment of an individual’s skills. Vendors and employers should be commended for working together to improve the assessment of individuals before granting certification in an effort to strengthen the industry’s credentials. Individuals who have worked to learn their skills and have further perfected them through hands-on learning should also commend these efforts, since their own certifications will be strengthened. However, comprehensive skills assessment is still not a perfect science, we are only beginning to use performance-based testing in technology certification, and performance-based training is still evolving in the world of technology training.

While it is necessary to use performance-based testing to improve the assessment of an individual’s skills before granting certification credentials, additional changes are needed and are evolving to help make this type of testing truly valuable. As stated earlier in this article, academia has recognized the need to provide what they term “performance-based education,” loosely defined as the use of various instructional techniques resulting in individuals who can demonstrate mastery of identified hands-on skills and knowledge.

Over the past two years, technology training companies of all types have been evolving their instruction to include much more hands-on training in “labs” through the use of actual equipment in person, much more realistic simulations, the use of actual equipment through the Internet with step-by-step learning instructions or a combination of all of these techniques. The technology training industry has not adopted the term “performance-based education” or “performance-based training,” but training is definitely evolving in that direction, limited only by technology and network bandwidth. The Field Certified Professional Association (FCPA) has also been working to further promote the adoption of performance-based testing by vendors offering certification.

When looking for certification training, be sure to understand what types of hands-on training are provided, and be ready to use multiple types of learning vehicles to gain your skills. A blended approach to learning is the most viable way to learn. So be sure to combine instructor-led classes with books and self-paced e-learning. Or, combine the use of self-paced e-learning that includes access to hands-on labs and simulations with books to gain a well-rounded learning environment. Of course, if you can also add on-the-job experience to this training, it will further enhance your skills.

Performance-based testing is here to stay and will serve to strengthen the certifications you attain. Understanding this and how you can better prepare for certification exams will definitely enhance your skills and your career.

Denny Yost is the vice president of marketing at MindLeaders, a global provider of integrated, off-the-shelf, self-paced e-learning solutions, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Founded in 1981, MindLeaders was the first company to convert all of its courses to native HTML for real-time presentation through the Internet, in what later became termed “self-paced e-learning.”

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