Keeping the Value of Certifications High

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When looking for a topic for my column, I often visit Web sites focusing on the IT certification community. One useful activity is to read the comments on tests by those who have just finished them or those preparing to take them. For one particular test, most of the first few comments were asking other readers to provide easy study materials, cheat sheets and addresses of brain-dump sites. Eventually, two of the readers reacted, and I liked their responses so much I am reprinting them here (edited slightly). If their names were given, I would have included those as well.


  • “Kind of a shame–four out of seven mails just asking for dumps and cheats–really disgrace the cert!”
  • “No kidding. If you can’t pass the test without brain dumps, you don’t know what you are doing! How about actually buying a router? How about going to work and asking the network engineers questions about the network? I had no problem establishing a rapport with the network engineers at a big Fortune 500 company, and they answered and explained a lot of theory to me. I worked to get my certification and don’t want to have it discredited by a bunch of know-nothing, ‘gotta have it now’ jerks. I can’t wait until you fry for doing something stupid simply because you don’t want to do the work required. Nothing worth having is free or easy.”


These two, more than the others, understood the value of their certification and were rallying support to keep the value high. Holding a valued certification means that you can become employed, get a promotion or avoid a reduction in force. It also encourages personal feelings of competence and pride in your accomplishments and capabilities. When the certification loses that value, it provides you with none of those benefits.

All certifications will eventually lose their value. Most of the time this occurs naturally when the job skills and knowledge supported by the certification are no longer needed by the industry or by society. Often, the product upon which the certification is based is no longer used, produced or sold. Of course, there is nothing you or I have done to cause this, nor is there anything we can do to prevent it. However, many programs suffer and struggle for two general types of correctable problems.

First, some programs do not follow professional standards of development, creating lousy tests that aren’t capable of identifying qualified individuals. Usually the problems are with the tests themselves (bad test questions or improperly set pass/fail score), but often such programs fail to gather the necessary job-related information that allows them to create good tests. Such programs are destined to fail because they are not built on solid foundations. They don’t understand the jobs people do nor the skills and knowledge needed for those jobs. My advice is to stay away from programs where it is obvious that little effort is being made to create a quality program or reliable and valid certification tests.

Fortunately there are not many programs like this in IT. And it’s more good news that the problem is relatively easy to fix. The methods used to create good tests and good programs are known and fairly routine today.

The second problem is more insidious and difficult to fix and is related to the example at the beginning of the column. There are individuals who drag the value of the program down. They do this by insisting on the easy path to certification, namely, cheating. They cheat by having others take tests for them or physically help them, by bringing cheat sheets or other materials with them to the test and by using brain-dump sites that contain illegal copies of test questions. They fail to realize the effect of their actions on the certification they are trying to obtain.

These individuals are reaching for the short-term goal of quickly and fraudulently gaining the certification and job and are not interested in the long-term career possibilities. They exemplify what it means to be “paper-certified” and will have short-lived careers in IT anyway. Unfortunately, their legacy of damage to the program will last much longer than they will.

But I’d like to end this month’s column on a positive note. I am heartened when reminded that there are individuals out there who recognize the damage that is occurring and are willing to stand up to it.

David Foster, Ph.D. is president of Galton Technologies Inc., a past president of the Association of Test Publishers (ATP) and a member of the National Council for Measurement in Education and the American Educational Research Association. E-mail David at


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