A short history of IT certification, Part 4: The modern IT certification exam
Posted on
November 14, 2022

This feature first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Certification exams are an important element of the history of IT certification.

NOTE: Part three of our four-part series on the history of IT certification was printed in the July 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. You can read it here.

Previously, this series covered the early roots of professional certification, the debut and rise in popularity of IT certifications, and the origins (and pros/cons) of vendor-based and vendor-neutral certification programs.

In this series-concluding article, we’re going to focus on the endpoint of most IT training programs: the certification exam. Why do we have these exams? How have they evolved over time? And what does the future hold for them?

A brief grammar lesson

The word "exam" is a tricky term, a short form of the verb examine and the noun examination. In its modern usage, exam is used synonymously with "test," which is both a noun and a verb. This means you can take an exam to test your skill, but you can’t take a test to exam your skill.

Another great example of the muddled connection between these two words, is that many certification exams are taken at testing centers. Egads! Let’s agree to use exam and test as interchangeable nouns, which is the most common modern usage.

A history exam

It’s a classic trope found in thousands of ancient (and modern) tales: The pupil or pupils, after training and preparing to start on a new life path, must prove themselves worthy by passing a final test.

It could be the Trial of the Warrior, the Challenge of the Forbidden Cave — or maybe just Finals Week at Hogwarts. The common theme is that if you want to become a wizard, a Jedi, or a certified IT professional, then you must first show that you know your stuff by passing one or more exams.

In some early medieval guilds, apprentices worked for years to gain experience and training before having to pass some kind of test to become guild members in full standing. This achievement elevated the worker to the level of a paid professional, bestowing the title of journeyman.

A journeyman who refined their craft over time could apply to the guild to become a master. This often required a test of the craftsman’s skill via the creation of an advanced piece of work known as a masterwork, which would be submitted to the guild for evaluation. Upon approval, the guild bestowed the title of master to the worker.

Interestingly, there are several modern industries that continue to use a variation of the apprentice-journeyman-master model of testing and advancement. Now, as then, the list of industries where this practice is followed includes trades such as electricians and plumbers.

This structure is also seen in IT certification where some certifications use specific titles (e.g. associate, professional, expert, and so forth) to signify the level of skill and experience required to achieve the credential.

IT certification exams emerge

Certification exams are an important element of the history of IT certification.

As the modern IT industry developed during the 1990s, new training and certification programs were created to help identify workers who were proficient with emerging technologies. These programs largely mirrored the classical education model, using instructor-led training to prepare candidates to take one or more certification exams.

These early exams were basically electronic versions of standardized testing, using a keyboard and mouse in place of a No. 2 pencil. The bulk of these early exams were made up of traditional multiple-choice, multiple-answer, and true/false questions. Exam technology improved over time, leading to more sophisticated question types like drag-and-drop and fill-in-the-blank. There are also questions that take candidates sequentially through multiple stages of a required solution.

Many modern certification exams now have performance-based questions that use simulated computing environments which candidates must navigate to achieve a given outcome. Performance-based questions are generally recognized to be superior to traditional multiple-choice questions, as they require more practical experience with a given product or information system.

Location, location, location

The early popularity of IT certification resulted in the opening of hundreds of test centers around the world, dedicated facilities that maintain exclusive privileges for hosting exams from vendors and vendor-neutral IT industry bodies.

This arrangement has had its issues, including low availability of exam bookings due to high demand, and challenging travel requirements for candidates located a long distance from the nearest test center. Security policies and procedures are not always standardized across test centers, and especially older facilities are sometimes vulnerable to various cheating schemes.

The latest advancement in certification exams is to shift testing away from physical facilities via online exam proctoring. This gives candidates the ability to take exams at home while being monitored by an online proctor. Exam proctoring has traditionally been done by vendor staff or test center personnel, but recent years have seen the release of software-based exam proctoring services.

Online exam proctoring became a critical service during the global COVID-19 pandemic. The availability of online certification exams let candidates continue to earn credentials when the availability of seats at test centers shrank to an untenable state. While the pandemic has shown signs of easing down, there is no doubt that the flexibility and convenience of online exams has changed the game for good.

The future of certification exams

Certification exams are an important element of the history of IT certification.

Certification exams offer a scalable and sustainable method for testing large numbers of candidates, which makes them an ideal ongoing solution for IT vendors and industry associations. The challenge is to find ways to keep these exams relevant for new generations of IT professionals.

Standardized testing is typically used to assess someone’s ability to memorize and recall information. In modern workplaces, however, a great deal of our information recall function has been handed over to our phones and digital assistants. Asking modern IT workers to prove their abilities through rote memorization of commands and configuration items is out of sync with how people work in this century.

Future certification exams shouldn’t rely on the “no phone rule” for test takers. Certifying bodies should continue to move away from standardized testing and increase adoption of performance-based simulations and scenario-based questions that focus on observation and problem-solving skills.

Vendors and non-vendors alike should also take a hard look at their current and future exam pricing. While there is a cost involved in developing and deploying new exams, the bigger picture is that IT certification serves the best interests of certifying bodies by creating new generations of workers who are proficient with their products and technologies.

In the future, there shouldn’t be a financial barrier for candidates looking to get certified. Vendors and industry associations should keep their exam fees as low as possible.

Merrily we roll along

We hope you have found value in this series on the history of certification. Human societies through the centuries have benefitted from being able to identify and recognize trained professionals across industries of all types. The future of IT certification will continue to rely on this value, and on talented individuals who choose to earn credentials to distinguish themselves in the industry.

About the Author

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.

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