Certification Testing in IT: How Important Is It?

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Over the past few months, I’ve heard comments from friends and colleagues in the industry, stated in many different ways, that “IT certification testing is not high-stakes.” What they mean is that the certifications earned in IT are not as important as other non-IT certifications, or that they’re not important enough to justify quality efforts to build or administer the exams properly or manage the certifications professionally.

I don’t buy it.

To start off, we need to make sure that we understand the difference between a low-stakes test and a high-stakes test. The difference is actually pretty clear. Simply put, a high-stakes test is one where the result has important effects on the life of the test-taker. That’s it. Not too hard to understand. Now, let’s apply that to IT certification testing.

Just as in non-IT certification testing, an IT certification candidate pays quite a lot of money to train and take tests. The goal of that preparation is to pass the exam and obtain a certification. With a certification in hand, an IT professional can advance at his company, keep a current job or get a new job. Each of these, plus the cost for training and testing, has an important effect and makes IT certification testing high-stakes. Those who tell you anything else are selling something.

Here are some false distinctions between high-stakes and low-stakes exams that I’ve heard:



  • IT certification tests are low-stakes because the jobs are not as important to society as medical doctors or accountants.
  • Tests that are given on the computer are low-stakes; traditional paper-and-pencil tests are high-stakes. (I’ve also heard the opposite.)
  • Short tests are low-stakes; long, grueling tests are high-stakes.
  • Cheap tests are low-stakes; expensive tests are high-stakes. (This one may have some validity, as you are putting hard-earned cash at risk.)
  • Tests that get you admitted to college or graduate school are high-stakes; all others are low-stakes.
  • Tests with multiple-choice questions are low-stakes; performance tests are high-stakes.


What kind of testing in the IT world would not be high-stakes? One example is testing to practice for the real certification test, or “test preparation.” Also, quizzes given after a section of training to see if learning has occurred do not qualify as high-stakes. Neither does a test you might take on the Internet or at a training company to place you in a proper online or actual course. These are examples of low-stakes testing. They don’t cost much or require an investment of time, and they don’t have important outcomes.

Why does this matter? It matters because if we don’t treat high-stakes exams with the respect they deserve and require, neither will anyone else. Soon there will be no need to revise exams to keep them current, take steps to keep them secure, create good exams that measure the right skills or use the results for hiring decisions. There will not even be a need to take them in the first place. We might as well be using end-of-course quizzes for certification decisions. They’ll be cheaper and take less effort, and no one would pay attention to them anyway.

When I worked for Novell years ago, a VP wanted to certify hundreds of thousands of people very quickly. He was unhappy and impatient with a formal certification process, and the time and cost it would take to deliver high-stakes tests and produce good certificants. I told him that if he were considering any lesser process, he might just as well have individuals voluntarily sign a form stating that they are knowledgeable and skilled, and have that serve as the certification credential. It would be a quick and cheap solution. Of course, it also would produce quick and cheap (worthless) certificants. He quickly realized this and dropped his demand.

While no single group can solve the problem, as certification candidates, you can help reverse the perceptions. First, insist on quality exams. If you don’t feel that the exam you’re taking measures the important knowledge and skill you have, complain and ask for your money back. Second, if the testing or certification experience is shoddy and unprofessional, go elsewhere. Third, if you see people cheating or obtaining scores fraudulently, report them. And fourth, don’t try to get a certification by relying on brain dumps or other cheap methods. Brain dumps continue to contribute to the decline in value of IT certifications.

David Foster, Ph.D., is president of Caveon (www.caveon.com) and is a member of the International Test Commission, as well as several measurement industry boards.


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