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Protecting Your Certification: The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

When IT professionals cheat on certification tests, they not only do themselves a disservice--they also undermine the industry and devalue the certifications themselves. Lutz Ziob examines the many ramifications of unethical test-taking in this article reprinted by permission from Certification Magazine.

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Concern over the security and integrity of IT certification exams has become increasingly important with the growing significance of certification in the hiring process. There are many different facets of security that need to be considered—from technical queries of test-question storage and data transmission to the behavior of proctors and administrative employees at test sites. Day-to-day operational procedures are as important as the integrity of subject matter experts and other contributors to test development whose behavior is governed under non-disclosure agreements from exam vendors. This "supply side" of IT certification testing is frequently discussed and seems to be well understood. Yet hardly any attention is given to the test-takers, the individuals who are preparing to become IT experts or further their careers as IT professionals.

Imagine the following scenario: Two young lawyers meet and talk about their recent bar exams. Both are clearly glad they finally made it! The grueling experience of exam preparation and test-taking is now history for them—though the assessment marathon was not that bad after all, as they readily admit. Both take some pride in the fact that they passed with a bare minimum of preparation time and effort. Being able to sneak some notes into the test center proved to be rather helpful. Even more importantly, knowing the majority of questions upfront was even more beneficial. How could that be? Spending quality time on this cool new Web site "Fake-it-rather-than-take-it.cheat" really paid off nicely. They were able to find an ample supply of answers to real-life test questions that numerous soon-to-be lawyers had posted there after taking the bar exam. What a godsend that was! Officially accredited—and well-rested—our two friends felt truly ready to exercise their profession.

How would you like to have lawyers like these represent your interests in a legal dispute? How would you feel about being treated by a doctor who faked exams? What would be your feelings about dealing with accountants or architects who brag about the many shortcuts they have taken to get their professional credentials? Most likely your confidence in their skills and abilities is badly lacking....

Why is it that we seem to have a very hard time accepting unprofessional behavior by just about any more established profession, yet we are prepared to tolerate or at least ignore wrong-doings among IT professionals in our industry? Are there differences here that justify greater scrutiny and higher ethical standards for one group versus the other? It would seem that the IT industry deserves the same assurances of adequate skills and knowledge as any other profession out there. Why should we tolerate network administrators who got their qualifying certificate due to memorization of test answers published on the Web? Do we really feel our company's computer system is adequately protected by Webmasters who managed to forage the Internet security test designed to assess their true skills and capabilities?

Distinguishing Effects

Certification exams have been created to effectively measure a person's ability to perform certain job roles and functions. Employers and employees alike rely on the distinguishing effect of assessment programs. The difference between people with appropriate skills and those that are not yet fully qualified is important for the IT industry and needs to be protected. That's why we as an industry care so much about the security of certification exams. To get to the highest possible level of security, many things have to be in place. It is a challenging, complex puzzle, and the conduct of the individual test-taker makes a huge difference.

Testing and certification have become major factors in the IT industry. In just over 10 years, we have seen the unprecedented creation of a extensive industry around IT certification training and testing. Gone are the days when candidates were faced with the choice between just one or two well-established certification programs and a few test sites scattered around the country.

Now the global IT certification industry offers at least 300 different programs in a minimum of 50 categories. At the beginning of 2000, at least 1.7 million certification credentials had been granted to individuals in the United States and more than 140 countries around the world. The test site infrastructure has rapidly grown to about 5,000 testing sites worldwide, delivering more than 3 million IT exams last year. Clearly, the IT certification industry has blossomed and there is a lot to be lost if the security of our exams cannot be guaranteed.

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