Are MCP exams failing test takers?

The new pass/fail look of Microsoft's MCP exams is failing to pass muster with some testy test takers. But Redmond seems to be feeding on the feedback and willing to address MCP concerns.

MCPs who were rankled when Microsoft changed its method of grading certification exams may be pleased to learn that the company is taking its customers' complaints to heart and is considering ways to offer more feedback to those who fail the tests.

Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) have been upset with Microsoft's decision last year to scores its MCP exams on a pass/fail basis and to eliminate the business of giving specific feedback for individual test takers. In the past, candidates received a report at the end of the test that included details about how they performed on each test module.

In Microsoft's fiscal year 2001 (July 1st to June 30th), 456,897 individuals were certified on Microsoft technologies. In fiscal year 2000, 409,525 people received certifications.

Candidates who fail the tests today dislike the new system because it doesn't spotlight their weaknesses or give them any guidance on how to improve their scores.

"I just had a guy take a test a month ago and he failed, but he doesn't know why he failed," said Michael Carpenter, president of CT Source, a Marblehead, Mass.-based integrator. "He's frustrated because he doesn't know what to study, and I'm frustrated because as a business owner I can't get my guy certified."

But Microsoft has heard the complaints and is considering making some changes.

Dan Truax, group manager of Microsoft certification strategies, said the company is looking at a variety of alternatives, and nothing has been ruled out. But the company won't revert to the old way of scoring: "We feel there is a better way to provide the data," Truax said.

At TechEd, Anne Marie McSweeney, director of Microsoft Certification, had said Microsoft is considering ways to make some information available to let candidates know if they failed by a little or a lot. McSweeney also said Microsoft may hold online chats about the topic with MCPs in the near future to get some feedback.

Truax said Microsoft originally decided to change the way it scores exams because the company was concerned that people were comparing each others' scores even though they may have been taking different versions of the same exam. Redmond refreshes its exam questions constantly, so scores are not necessarily comparable from one test to the next, Truax explained.

Ed Tittel, president of LANWrights, an Austin, Texas-based writing, training and consulting firm, said the fact that Microsoft seems willing to reconsider is a good sign that the company is listening to feedback.

The fact is that no one, including Microsoft's Truax, disagrees that feedback is a valuable part of the educational process. "We know customers want their exams to be more diagnostic," he said.

Customers, like integrators, have an interest in learning where their skills are weak so they can do a better job studying for a retest. Chris Droz, a CAD project engineer at Kirkland, Wash.-based Kenworth Truck Co., said the feedback is helpful for test takers because "some tests are more challenging than others," and it's always good to see what was missed.

But not everyone thinks Microsoft should change its current system. Frederick Volking, a senior architect at Hunter Stone, an integrator in Columbia, S.C., said he favors Microsoft's current scoring plan, because he believes a test taker must be better prepared overall to pass this sort of test.

Volking said the more detail that trickles out of Microsoft about each question, the more information gets into the hands of companies that try to make it easy for people to pass the test by simply memorizing questions without understanding them.

"Too many students learn by rote and not by experience," Volking said.

Students paying the $125 price of the exam may beg to differ, particularly since a retest doubles the cost. "For $250, don't you think they deserve some information?" LANWright's Tittel said.

"It's one thing to say you are giving up exam integrity by giving up questions. It's another thing to give away information [that identifies] where people are weak and where they are strong."

Microsoft keeps a tight lid on the exam pass rates, although Tittel ventured a guess of 60% making the grade.

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