Microsoft recently introduced simulation technology in its Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) exams. By moving away from traditional, text-based question items toward a mix of simulated task enactments, the software giant hopes to measure skills and knowledge more effectively by making exams more relevant to real-world jobs.
Testing experts have known for years that simulation questions are a better way to assess skills and knowledge related to on-the-job performance. Other IT certification programs -- most notably, those from Cisco Systems Inc., Red Hat Inc. and Novell Inc. -- have used simulation or lab environments to stress installation, configuration, maintenance and troubleshooting tasks that professionals must be able to handle on the job.
It's gratifying to see Microsoft jumping on the performance-based testing bandwagon. The move reinforces the company's desire to enhance the value of its certifications and make them more relevant to employers trying to identify individuals who can handle various IT job roles, as well as key tasks and activities.
On its performance-based testing Web page, Microsoft lists the following advantages that simulations bring to certification exams:
- Exam candidates are required to execute tasks, rather than answer questions about such tasks.
- Emphasis is placed on results to assess how well candidates' solutions match requirements. This is more important than evaluating the steps taken to create the solution in the real world.
- Questions provide a way to assess skills demonstrated and how well knowledge and understanding can be put to work (or to the test, as it were).
- Questions model common problems, tasks and situations so that what's tested actually reflects real-world requirements.
- Questions about actual job tasks and skills help candidates build confidence so they can do the job in the workplace.
- Preparation and practice also build genuine experience that exam takers can use immediately on the job.
To get a sense of what Microsoft MCP simulations look and feel like, you can check out a simulation demo.
Simulation testing will start with the MCSA/MCSE core exams. On March 31, two exams became the first to introduce this type of content at both Thomson Prometric and Pearson VUE testing centers70-290: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment and 70-291: Implementing, Managing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure. In June 2005, 70-293: Planning and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure and 70-294: Planning, Implementing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Active Directory Infrastructure will receive the same treatment. This will cover core elements in the Windows Server 2003 tracks; Microsoft is also "evaluating customer demand for Windows 2000 exams" and reportedly plans to add simulation items to at least one exam on the MCSE roster for that track as well.
Overall, I think this is a welcome change in Microsoft's approach to certification testing. It should help allay concerns that Microsoft certifications don't address real-world skills and knowledge and will breathe new life into the company's credentials. Though Microsoft still plans to include traditional questions along with simulation items, that combination means more value for its exams and credentials, both for those pursuing them and those trying to decide if their presence or absence would have any impact on hiring or other personnel decisions.
Ed Tittel is a full-time freelance writer, trainer and consultant who specializes in certification and training, information security, markup languages and networking topics. He writes for numerous TechTarget Web sites, is technology editor for Certification Magazine, and writes an e-mail newsletter for CramSession called Must Know News. He has written or contributed to many computer books; his latest is The PC Magazine Guide to Fighting Spyware, Viruses, and Malware (Wiley Publishing). E-mail Tittel at firstname.lastname@example.org.