The Internet and Testing
It is an understatement to declare that the Internet is useful. I’m not sure how we shopped, communicated or learned before it was so ubiquitous and accessible. It has enhanced our lives and our businesses in ways we never could have imagined.
It has had a similar effect in the world of testing. There are three overlapping phases of Internet use in IT certification testing over the past decade. As experienced test takers destined to continue taking IT certification tests throughout your lives, this may give you a glimpse into your future testing experiences.
Phase One was the testing support phase of Internet use, and it began in the mid-’90s when testing companies began to save money by using the Internet to download tests to candidates around the world and upload their test results. Before then, they had to endure the delays and costs associated with the use of modems and phone lines. In remote areas of the world, phone lines were notoriously slow, unreliable and very expensive. Soon after that, Internet sites became available to communicate program information to candidates, collect registration information and even schedule exams at specific testing centers.
In the late ’90s, Phase Two saw the introduction of low-stakes tests on the Internet. A low-stakes test is one where the score doesn’t mean much, or where the “test” may be a survey asking for opinions or demographic information. A couple of years ago, I took “tests” of my knowledge of Italian on several Web sites. Having been fluent in Italian 30 years ago, I tried a few of these quizzes or tests, some of which actually provided me with a proficiency score. (I won’t tell you how I scored, but I certainly wasn’t fluent anymore.) From this experience–and it hasn’t changed today–I was surprised that the tests had different formats, instructions, reports, etc. There was no standardization of the testing, and that’s OK, since they were low-stakes. Such testing, however, provided the proof of concept needed to try high-stakes testing on the Internet.
Phase Three, which began recently, uses the Internet to deliver high-stakes IT certification exams. They are high-stakes because they help determine whether you get certified or not. Employers can rely on the certification decisions to make sure they are hiring the most competent IT professionals.
Primarily for security reasons, Phase Three will not succeed unless there are some creative solutions. Here are some possible innovations:
- Score Verification: A test can be taken on the Internet as if it were an actual certification test. The results of the test would be provided to a potential employer who could then choose to verify the score by having the person take a more secure, lengthier test, monitored by a staff member. This verification motivates the test taker to take the Internet test properly to get a true measure of skills or ability.
- Unexpected Distribution Channels: An existing retail chain having nothing to do with testing, for example, might wish to add testing to its offerings, carve some space out and hire testing administrators and proctors to monitor the Internet tests.
- Certified Proctor Network: An organization could train and certify an army of proctors nationwide who would be called upon to go to a place of work, a home or a school to monitor an Internet test for a fee. They would verify that the test was taken properly under quiet and secure conditions.
- Software Lock-Down: The test is given under software conditions that don’t allow for printing, screen capture or access to hard drives, networks or communication ports. All the test taker can do is answer a question and move on to the next one.
- Soft Monitoring: This refers to using sophisticated statistical analyses to immediately verify that an Internet test was taken properly. Aberrant patterns in how questions were answered and in the amount of time taken for each question would invalidate a score’s usefulness for certification. Of course, on the positive side, a non-aberrant result would add to the confidence that the test was taken properly and securely.
- Hard Monitoring: Hardware can be used to monitor the Internet test and to confirm that the test taker was actually the one answering the questions. Webcams, fingerprint verification keys, audio recorders and other devices could help verify that the person taking the test was doing so properly. The monitoring could be assisted by a virtual or remote proctor who is watching the test in real time.
These innovations and others could help the Internet provide secure, high-stakes IT certification testing in the future. The additional convenience and perhaps reduced cost of such testing would be reasons enough to encourage it.
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.