This feature first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
CompTIA's A+ certification for professional computer technicians has been part of the IT industry landscape for more than 25 years. The A+ accounts for half of all CompTIA certifications awarded in the association's long history. Five years ago, CompTIA awarded its one-millionth A+ certification, making it one of the most popular IT credentials in the world.
Earlier this year, CompTIA did a refresh of both A+ certification exams, releasing exams 220-1001 and 220- 1002. This latest refresh was just one of several revisions CompTIA has performed on the A+ exams during their lifespan. Every exam refresh gives CompTIA and its subject matter experts the opportunity to reconfigure the exams so that outdated material is removed, and more current content is added.
There is an outstanding issue, however, that directly pertains to CompTIA's latest revision of its flagship credential. The problem boils down to a single question: Should the A+ certification still consist of two separate exams? Let's take a closer look at this question, and consider the argument that it's time for CompTIA to offer a single unified A+ exam.
Hardware and software tests
The history of the A+ certification is a story of two different exams: one exam focused on computer hardware, and a second exam based on computer software. In order to be awarded an A+ certification, candidates have always had to pass both exams; there has never been any sort of recognition for passing only one of the A+ exams.
When CompTIA refreshes the A+ exams, it decides what existing exam content still belongs, what content should be added, and what content should be removed. These decisions have historically been made based on a given technology's level of industry adoption.
For example, consider how you could sort hardware and software into one of three categories::
Aged/Discontinued: Hardware and software which is no longer used or is on its way out
Current: Hardware and software implemented in a majority of current IT environments
Emerging: Hardware and software that has just started to make inroads in the industry
These are obviously very broad categories with sub-levels existing within each of them. The point here is that a candidate should expect that the A+ exam content has been selected and prioritized based on how likely it is the candidate will encounter related technology in the working world.
A candidate should also expect that the A+ exams are mapped to the tasks and responsibilities most commonly associated with the job roles relevant to A+-certified workers. This is a large body of information to gather and analyze, but CompTIA is a leading expert in exactly this type of research.
With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the evidence suggesting that today's version of the A+ certification no longer requires two separate exams.
When two become one
As noted above, there are two primary factors which should shape the content of an A+ exam. The content should focus on hardware and software which has high adoption rates in the industry, and it should be prioritized based on the job tasks A+-certified professionals will most likely encounter in the workplace.
There is also a third factor, one based on CompTIA's recommended audience for the A+ certification. According to CompTIA, candidates should have 12 months of experience as an IT support specialist — before tackling either of the A+ exams. This recommended level of experience should be considered when deciding which topics (and at what level of proficiency) should be included in an A+ exam.
For this discussion, we're going to focus on the A+ exams released in January. The previous generation of A+ exams (220-901 and 220-902) were launched in December 2015 and, while they are still available as of this writing, both exams will soon be retired.
Here are some basic facts about the new A+ exams:
Exam 202-1001 is the current version of the A+ hardware exam. This exam consists of up to 90 multiple-choice and performance-based questions. The time limit for the exam is 90 minutes. The knowledge domains (and the percentage of exam content dedicated to each of them) are as follows:
- Mobile Devices (14 percent)
- Networking (20 percent)
- Hardware (27 percent)
- Virtualization and Cloud Computing (12 percent)
- Hardware and Network Troubleshooting (27 percent)
So far so good, at least on the surface. When you begin to drill down into these knowledge domains, however, there is a significant amount of exam content which doesn't jibe with the established qualifications for what an A+ exam should contain.
The Hardware and Hardware and Network Troubleshooting domains are particularly troubling. To be blunt, there are large chunks of content present which should be removed in order to shorten this exam.
Here is just one example. One of the topics in the Hardware knowledge domain asks candidates to explain the purpose and use of various peripheral devices, including these items:
- Mouse and keyboard
- DVD drive
- Game controllers
In 2019, anyone who needs to have the purpose of any of these items explained to them is clearly a time traveler from decades past, or perhaps from the far future, and they should be detained and persuaded to divulge the location of their quantum GPS system.
This kind of content is far too light and fluffy for an exam aimed at IT professionals with a year of professional experience. This and similar material could easily be extracted from the 220-1001 exam without compromising the integrity of the credential.
Another issue with the 220-1001 exam is related to the value statement modern companies place on hardware repair vs. replacement. Today's businesses place a premium on reducing downtime and the lost productivity it causes. Faulty hardware (up to a certain cost point) is far more likely to be replaced than sent for repair.
What's more, today's enterprise is no longer dominated by desktop computers with modular components which can easily be replaced by opening a tower case. Laptop computers are increasingly being built with non-replaceable components which are glued or soldered into place.
Similarly, the majority of smartphones and tablets are unserviceable. Most models, in fact, are impossible to open except by the vendor itself. Attempting to open the device will void the manufacturer's warranty.
The repair vs. replace value equation, and the non-repairability of today's computer hardware, make much of the hardware-based content in the 220-1001 A+ exam extraneous at best.
The 220-1002 exam is the new A+ software exam. It shares the same question count and time limit as the 220-1001 exam. These are the exam domains and content priorities for 220-1002:
- Operating Systems (27 percent)
- Security (24 percent)
- Software Troubleshooting (26 percent)
- Operational Procedures (23 percent)
Here again, we find plenty of exam content that is not nearly as industry-relevant as it has been made out to be. Additionally, there is content here that should arguably be covered in exam 220-1001. For example, here are three exam objectives regarding networking:
Given a scenario, install and configure a basic wired/wireless SOHO network.
Given a scenario, configure Microsoft Windows networking on a client/desktop.
Given a scenario, configure security on SOHO wireless and wired networks.
Why would these topics be split between two different exams? The first topic is from the 220-1001 exam, the last two are from the 220-1002 exam. Wouldn't it make more sense to A+ candidates if all of the networking content was on the same exam?
A more debatable issue with the 220-1002 exam is the inclusion of Windows 7, Windows 8, and Linux content. According to Net Marketshare's May 2019 Operating System Share by Version statistics, the number of Windows 10 installations has risen 10 percent over the last 12 months, while the number of Windows 7 installations has dropped by more than 6 percent. Windows 10 now makes up the majority of desktop and laptop installations.
Further, Microsoft ended mainstream support for Windows 7 in January 2015, and is ending extended support in January 2020. Yes, some organizations are still running this OS on their workstations. But the dropping numbers suggest that Windows 7 is being phased out and Windows 10 is taking its place. When you recall that updates to the A+ exams only occur every four years or so, it is a fair point to say that Windows 7 content could have been excluded from the 2019 A+ exam versions.
As for Windows 8, Net Marketshare shows this OS with a total install base of 5.47 percent, making it highly irrelevant for A+ certified technicians. Desktop versions of Linux are even less relevant, with a market share of 1.51 percent. Any content for these two OSes could clearly be removed from the 220-1002 exam.
A+ Exam Recommendations
The new face of the A+ certification should be one exam consisting of 120 questions, with a two-hour time limit. With the amount of material CompTIA could (and should) remove from the two existing exams, this revision is very achievable.
Obviously, there is a monetary consideration involved when making this kind of change. At present, the fee for one of the A+ exams is $219, meaning candidates must pay $438 in exam fees to earn the A+ credential.
It would ill-serve CompTIA (from a marketing perspective at least) to charge this same amount for a single A+ exam. A modest discount, say a $400 fee for the single A+ exam, would make the changeover to a single-exam format very popular with candidates while maintaining a fair price point for CompTIA.
CompTIA has been diligent about refreshing the A+ exams' content over the last 25 years. Now it needs to see that two exams is one too many, and then create a single A+ certification exam that better serves computer technicians and the IT industry at large.