Some Good Things Never Change

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Nervous as you have never been before, you are ushered into a large intimidating enclosure with high brick walls. Once inside you see thousands of small brick cells arranged in straight rows. Following the uniformed officer, you continue past several of the cells, peering inside some as you pass. In one you see a young man sitting at the only chair, taking a test at the only table. You see another uniformed man watching this young man intently. When you reach your cell, you are searched carefully. Satisfied, your escort leads you into your cell and seats you at the table. He gives you your exam and tells you to begin. He then stands off to the side and silently watches you.

Several days later the test ends, and you are allowed to leave. While taking the test, your only breaks have been to sleep, eat and go to the restroom. At all times you were monitored closely. And what was your reward for all of this? The chance of passing the test, you had learned, is a little better than 2 percent. But the potential opportunity was worth all the preparation and the grueling exam experience.

This is a description of the experience of hundreds of thousands of candidates for civil service jobs in China. And these tests took place more than 2,000 years ago! That’s right. During the Han dynasty, beginning about 165 B.C., certain candidates for government positions were offered the opportunity to take a written exam to prove their knowledge and capability. Such testing continued, with modifications along the way, until 1905.

As I read about this experience, I was more impressed by the similarities to IT certification programs than by the differences. But let’s start with the differences.

There were no computers, of course. They only used paper-and-pencil tests, which are still in use today by most non-IT certification programs. Individual rooms or cells were used instead of cubicles and partitions. Security monitoring was entirely human-based rather than supplemented with technology as is the case today.

What are the similarities?

First, it seems that proving your ability and knowledge with a test in order to get a better job was as important then as it is now. In ancient China, the test was a way to move out of the provinces and closer to the center of society, to improve your situation in life and to give honor to your family. For the government, the test provided a way to identify competent individuals, unite the provinces and create loyalty in far-reaching areas of the country. While worded differently, these are goals similar to those of certification programs today.

Second, a test, rather than some other assessment (such as resumes or portfolios), was deemed the most efficient and fair way to screen the hundreds of thousands of candidates. Being several days in length, the test was able to cover many subject areas while being quicker than alternative methods. It was fair because no one was able to obtain the government appointments without passing the test.

Third, the testing experience was standardized, even down to the size of the testing room. This standardization made it easier to compare scores and assume that differences in the scores were due to differences in knowledge and ability rather than other aspects of the testing situation.

Fourth, a high level of security was critical. Given the important outcome of the exam, it was necessary to ensure that individuals answered the questions on their own, that they didn’t use unauthorized materials or receive help from someone else.

It is amazing that the test continued for 2,000 years, with revisions, of course. In my mind, this provides support for the continuing value of credentialing people by certification.

In today’s more modern world, certification is relatively new, probably no more than 150 to 200 years old, beginning in Europe in the 19th century. For IT, certification is only about 15 years old, beginning at Novell in 1989.

It is not a stretch for me to believe that we are only beginning, like those in China in 165 B.C., a journey on a very long and interesting road.

David Foster, Ph.D., is a member of the International Test Commission and sits on several measurement industry boards.


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