Whose Question Was It?

Last week, I discussed how much work is involved in developing good certification exam questions, both for the real exam and exam-preparation software. Knowing how much work is involved, I'm always suspicious of any cut-rate priced exam-preparation software.

Why do I suspect such offerings? First, I worry that the questions and answers might be very poor quality, perhaps even wrong. I've read some practice exam questions whose author seems to have absolutely no product knowledge. The questions read as if someone extracted them from the product documentation, rewording them as questions. The author displays no awareness of the difference between trivial or useless information and key information that the technology's user might need or be confused about. In addition, these questions have no real explanation of why the right answer is right and the wrong answers are wrong. Any explanation is typically just more verbiage from the documentation. Such questions are worthless from an exam-preparation perspective, but they're cheap, and buyers might not realize their mistake until too late.

With such products, I also worry that the questions aren't original. Someone—perhaps another exam-preparation vendor or even Microsoft—might have spent long hours developing quality questions, and now someone else is taking advantage of that hard work. It's easy to sell cheaply something you didn't pay for in the first place.

Microsoft's training and certification Web site posts a very strict anti-piracy policy, including a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) that all exam takers must agree to before they take an exam. (You can see the details of the NDA and get answers to other questions about exam security on the Microsoft Training and Services Web site.) Despite the NDA that exam takers must agree to, rumors abound that some Web sites provide actual exam questions. In addition, some exam-preparation products come with a guarantee of passing, and I've heard claims that these products' questions are from the exams themselves. My first reaction when I hear something like this is to wonder how anyone can tell. My brain is so fried after taking an exam, I can barely remember any specific questions by the time I get back to my car. If a student showed up in my class with some vaguely familiar practice questions weeks after I'd taken an exam, I could agree that they sounded familiar, but I certainly couldn't tell whether they were verbatim from the exam.

But what if some Web sites and exam-preparation products do contain the exact questions that appear on exams? What does this mean to you? To Microsoft? To potential employers?

If you don't know that the questions are from the exams, these bootleg products might not affect you any differently than legitimately developed ones. But, if you know that the questions are right off the exam, you might trust the answers absolutely, without doing any further research or verifying that the answers are indeed correct. And you might be tempted to simply memorize answers without learning anything. That, of course, is your choice, but I don't believe that's why most people pursue certification.

For Microsoft and legitimate exam-preparation vendors, the issue is copyright violation, and they need to pursue the offenders and take appropriate legal action. Microsoft's security policies page on the Web site also addresses this issue by pointing out that exam questions aren't constant; Microsoft continually adds and removes questions.

And what about the employer who hires a certified person when his or her certification came from memorizing answers to stolen exam questions? I'll answer that with the same two words that ended last week's column: caveat emptor. Employers need to ensure that the people they hire really know how to do the job. Simply passing a test should never be the sole criterion.

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