Preparing for Performance-Based Tests

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Ever since IT certifications were conceived, one of the criticisms regularly lodged against them has been their dubiousness as a means of dependably identifying talent. In the 1990s especially, many certification testing environments had inadequate protection for exam content, so information could be memorized and later distributed physically or virtually by ersatz (or not) candidates to those preparing to take the test. However, had cheating never even entered the picture, reliability would still be an issue, especially if prospective hires had little more than certifications as their qualifications. Employers are wary of people who might be good test-takers, but have little practical familiarity with a particular role or technology. These kinds of applicants will likely be passed over by people who have proved themselves to be proficient through years of on-the-job experience.


Thus, one of the most positive developments in IT certifications since they were first established back in the early 1990s has been the introduction of hands-on testing as a method of measuring skill in a particular area of technology. When done right, performance-based testing has proved to be both a reliable technique for assessing aptitude (as candidates must demonstrate applied knowledge) and a secure means of exam delivery (for obvious reasons, cheating on a performance-based test is much more problematic than, say, a multiple-choice exam). It’s not surprising, then, that many credentialing programs have either already implemented or suggested that they would adopt performance-based exams as part of their testing procedure, especially for the more expert-level certifications.


Because it’s an entirely different way of testing, performance-based certification exams require a different regimen of study than a text-based, question-and-answer test. Above all, preparing for a hands-on exam necessitates approaches that are, well, hands-on. Here are a few other things to keep in mind before you tackle a performance-based test:



  • Never Pass Up an Opportunity for Practice, Especially Outside of Work: In our current Web poll, we ask our readers how they’ve applied their IT skills outside of their jobs. Although more than half have selected the “education and instruction for family and friends” option—and I’m sure this is a common request for you techies out there—significant numbers said they’ve tinkered around with technology at home either for practice or enjoyment. In other words, they’ve got a home lab, which is a great way to prepare for a performance-based certification. Also, about 13 percent of respondents said they’ve used their technical capabilities for community service projects and other volunteer work. All of these options are to the good, especially when it comes to gearing up for a hands-on exam. Remember, not all of your experience has to come from your job. In fact, it might be advantageous to familiarize yourself with technology in a hassle-free and non-laborious atmosphere.
  • Look for Hardware and Software Deals: You shouldn’t have to shell out big bucks for supplies that you’re essentially going to be disassembling, reconfiguring and so forth. Finding supplies for your home lab on the cheap shouldn’t be too difficult. You can start right at home on sites such as eBay and Craigslist as well as in your local newspaper’s classifieds, although you should check out your sellers before handing any money over. Other deals can be found at garage sales, government auctions, and the gigantic flea markets and discount sales commonly found in major auditoriums and arenas in big cities. Don’t forget to haggle!
  • Get a Good Night’s Sleep Before the Exam. And eat a big breakfast and drink plenty of coffee the morning of. Performance-based tests typically run several hours and you need to go in charged up, as you’ll be doing exhaustive physical and mental work during that time span. To offer an example, the prestigious Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) involves two exams, one written and one lab. The written tests, while by no means easy, last just two hours. On the other hand, the lab exam takes eight hours. That’s a considerable investment of time and energy, and you’d better make sure your body and mind are up to it.
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