I passed my cert exam with a 96 percent. Now I know everything … right?

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How much does it mean that you passed your certification exam?It has been almost two decades now since I took my first IT certification exams. The motivation behind gaining the sundry credentials has varied over the years, and the amount of time invested in preparation for a given exam has varied widely. After taking each test, however, I have always had a firm grasp of how well (or poorly) I understood the material being tested. Only two or three exams so far have resulted in a failing score, but there have been several that I passed by the skin of my teeth where my performance probably merited a failing result. The upshot is that the end score told me less about how well I knew the information than about the act of taking the test.

It never occurred to me just how little attention I paid to my own exam scores until recently. As the person who studied the material and took the test, there has never been any uncertainty about my command of the tested topics. Recently, however, I needed to evaluate the knowledge level of someone else who failed a certification exam. Then about four weeks later the individual passed the same exam with flying colors.

How much weight could I place in either result? In the end, I spent a great deal of time thinking about what a third-party can determine from passing and failing certification exam results. This article focuses on what can be gleaned from a passing exam score. Next month a follow-on article will focus on failed certification exams.

As a general rule, passing scores are all that employers will normally know about. An interview candidate is unlikely to mention that they required multiple attempts to pass a given exam. This is not a huge issue, although the reliability of a given test in assessing knowledge degrades somewhat as the number of attempts increases.

Even assuming the candidate passed the exam on the first attempt, the value of passing certification exams is a hot-button topic among certification detractors. A common refrain from the Certifications Are Worthless school of thought is that passing a multiple-choice exam is not proof that someone will be any good at a given job. Since I am a fervent certification advocate, it may be somewhat surprising to readers that I fully agree with that sentiment.

Picking one example, the Oracle certification program has created several “SQL Fundamentals” exams over the years. They are some of the most commonly taken exams because a SQL requirement is part of several certification tracks. In addition, knowledge of the SQL language is an important skill for both Oracle database administrators and developers. In my opinion, the topics included in the Fundamentals exams are meaningful and cover most of the areas that an entry-level SQL developer should be knowledgeable in. Despite all of this, obtaining a passing score on the exam does not prove someone will be a good SQL developer for several reasons:

People Cheat — Brain dump usage is widespread. They are so much a part of the certification landscape that I often see people arguing there is nothing wrong with using them. For this reason alone, you cannot be certain that a passing test score is meaningful.

Cramming Is Not Always Forever — Many people are very good at memorizing a large number of facts in a short period of time, and then retaining those facts for a short period of time. It is certainly possible to pass certification exams without actually being able to make use of that data in the months and years after earning the credential.

The Real World Is Not Multiple Choice — The SQL Fundamentals exams, like most certification tests, consist of multiple-choice and multiple-answer questions. The question is spelled out clearly to the test taker. Immediately below the question is a list of possibilities that always contains the correct answer. In reality, you are seldom given a clear question to work with. The answers are almost never supplied. The real world is much more like an essay question … except that it is often necessary to work with the person asking the question before it is even clear what they are asking for. It is virtually certain that some research will be required to locate the correct answer.

Knowledge and Skill Are Not Synonymous — Knowing SQL syntax forwards and backwards does not ensure that someone will be skilled at writing complex SQL statements. Even if an IT professional has honestly studied the material in the exam, understands all of the concepts, and will retain it indefinitely, they still may not be any good at properly utilizing that knowledge.

So What Do We Know That We Know?

How much does it mean that you passed your certification exam?For all of the above reasons, a passing score on a certification exam is not absolute proof of someone’s credentials for a particular area. By the same token, though, a four-year engineering degree from a prestigious university is not proof-positive that someone will be a good engineer. Both are just data points when making a decision about whether an individual might be a good candidate for a given job.

Despite this disconnect, fairly often on LinkedIn groups I see posts with titles that are some variant of “I just passed exam X with a 96 percent.” The text of the post announces the poster’s wonderful news and asks how they can leverage that high score to get a job. The truth of the matter is that employers in general have zero interest in how well candidates have performed on the exams related to these credentials. Even absent the analysis above, it is reasonably well understood that test scores do not map directly to performance.

For certification candidates, the truly important part of the score is that the inverse (i.e. 100 percent – 95 percent = 5 percent) provides the minimum amount of the material that they really ought to be studying after the exam. Whether receiving a passing or failing score, test takers will benefit from going over the material again immediately after taking the exam. This is when they will have the best recall of the questions they did not know the answers to.

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Matthew Morris

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Morris is an experienced DBA and developer. He holds Oracle DBA Certifications for every Oracle release from 7 through 12c; Expert certifications for SQL, SQL Tuning, and Application Express; and is an Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Professional. He is the author of more than 20 study guides for Oracle certification exams, as well as a suite of Oracle practice tests that are available at ocpexam.com.

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7 thoughts on “I passed my cert exam with a 96 percent. Now I know everything … right?”

  1. I agree to at least most of this article. However, those “data points” or what I like to call “achievements”, are nice to have when you look at credentials. (I am not saying that the article says that it isn’t, though).

  2. I agree with Matthew Morris that certifications “give me a very defined set of goals/knowledge to attain and a means for determining whether I have been successful in learning that information.” But there will always be the situation where you have to memorize things that you will never use in real life. I remember my very first certification exam, the Windows 95 exam, and a major portion of that exam dealt with supporting Windows 95 on a Novell network. I worked in a Microsoft shop and all of my experience was on a TCP/IP network. What did I do? I memorized it. To this day, nearly 20 years later, I’ve never worked on a Novell network. It was the same when I got my MCSE. I’ve used many backup programs but never really had any reason to use the NT backup program outside of a lab environment. And maybe a few times I’ve had to set up routing on an Windows server but 99% of our routing was done on dedicated Cisco networking devices. Same with Remote Access. We had dedicated 3rd part solutions and never had to configure it using the native NT software. But I had to know all of that for the exams. And of course the exams didn’t even cover things that I ultimately did need to know to do my job effectively like shell scripting.

    Not only that, but I’ve know guys who worked for years in a job and only used a very limited subset of the products features. They could put “10 years experience” on their resume but not be able to do what needed to be done. Neither certification nor experience replace good interviewing practices. Both are guides to help you narrow down the potential candidates. You still have to do the hard work of determining if the person is a good fit for the position.

  3. Certs are a starting point for each type of education. Where it all falls apart in in the HR / Job listings where someone is clueless about what a cert is or for. 6 years experience in a cert out for 3 years, a job requirement for multiple certs in conflicting areas of study all for a position that requires even less than they are asking. Hardware / software requires certs for postings of management type positions and management type certs for technical positions. When you do get a position you spend far too much time re-certify constantly instead of devoting time to your position.
    Still on the positive side any person who obtains certs, degrees or time in the service has shown the ability to apply themselves to education, follow procedures and endure the foolishness and downtime in the business world required in having a job in this day and age.

  4. I’m not a fan of certification, but recognize it as a necessary evil to gain entry into the IT field. The biggest problem I have with certification is that life is an open book test. No one can know everything. Certification forces you to learn information with a short term goal, pass the test. However, when you’re doing the job that certification is just a small part of the total position.

    I support over 40 engineering and analysis applications, there is no way to be an expert on them all. If I don’t know the answer I can check with the vendor and search on the web for a resolution, these aren’t options when you’re testing for a certification.

    As [user=Peter] said, certification shows that you were motivated enough to obtain the certification. That isn’t enough to give preference in my opinion. What do you call the person who graduated at the bottom of his medical class? Doctor. That doesn’t mean that’s the person that you want making life and death decisions for you. Having the knowledge doesn’t mean that you know how to apply that knowledge in an enterprise environment.

    One of my trainers in the early days told about going to a boot camp to obtain his certification. He obtained his certification and a job because he was certified. However, his biggest fear was that someone would ask him to do something that he was “certified” in.

    • @Kilroy – I agree that an exam is not necessarily representative of a person’s real-world performance, but sometimes there is no better method of evaluation. The emphasis on certification exams should be high level concepts and solving real world problems, not memorizing command shell syntax or using obscure product features that no one uses in the field. If exams were more “theory” than “function” they would be more useful.

      I want a certification to show that the person knows why a particular step should be taken to solve a problem, not that they have memorized which button to click without having any idea of what it really does behind the scenes. If they need to look up the particular steps to perform that task or the exact syntax of the command to type to do it, that’s fine, but knowing why their solution is correct shows real knowledge and understanding.

      Also, exams that test theory and concepts instead of tasks, are better for the candidates because that knowledge will be useful in scenarios with different products from different vendors and different platforms. If I really understand how DNS works, I can configure a Windows DNS server, a Linux DNS server, I can troubleshoot DNS problems and perform many other DNS related tasks. If all I learned is which PowerShell command to type to create a new zone on a Windows AD integrated DNS sever, that skill won’t translate to many other DNS problems.

    • “…but recognize it as a necessary evil…”

      The only real difference between a superhero and a super-villain is the purpose to which the entity in question puts their powers. I have been in the IT field for over two decades. I don’t *need* to take certifications to pimp my resume. I do it anyway because I like using them as a vehicle for learning. They give me a very defined set of goals/knowledge to attain and a means for determining whether I have been successful in learning that information.

      On the opposite end of the scale, there are people who use certifications as a means to make it seem that they have knowledge that they do not possess. They cheat by using brain dumps or other illegitimate materials to pass the exam.

      Does this mean certification exams are good or bad? It means neither. They are a tool, and they will be used by different people for good or bad purposes.

      Your trainer sounds like one of the people in the middle. From your post, he didn’t *cheat*, but neither did he really learn the material. He memorized enough to pass the test… and stopped. As in the article above, cramming is not forever, and boot camp style test preparation is notorious for this problem. Unless you go one to *use* the information after the boot camp, the knowledge will simply dribble away over time.

  5. To me, the one thing a certification shows (like your engineering degree example) is that the person was motivated enough to go through the process of obtaining the certification, or degree. There is a certain level of commitment and dedication that is required to make it through the process and that alone may be reason enough for employers to give preference to certified candidates.

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