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On testing

Here’s the Twitter conundrum in its full glory: The simplest thing to do was to tweet something along the lines of “Took a professional test – piece of cake. Now certified in something I don’t actually expect to be focused on.” Instead, I wanted to elaborate, and link the occurrence to what I think is an amusing fact in my biography. In other words, I felt like making a blog post out of it.

I’ve taken my share of “qualification” tests of my life. We’ll leave aside education-variety tests that have no obvious pass-fail boundaries and are judged according to informally accepted notions of success. My career as a technologist in financial services demanded – or gently suggested on occasion – that I obtained licenses or certifications by taking professional exams that had clear failure thresholds: Answer a certain percentage of questions correctly – pass; screw up one more question than allowed – there is no “good enough” in stock for you.

An instructor for my Series 7 preparation years ago was fond of repeating, “My goal is to have you answer the first 175 questions correctly and not bother with the rest, because 175 is all you need to pass”. In other words, if you master all aspects of the subject, you should really be able to ace the whole test, which, while nice on some level, is not exactly necessary. Of course, in real life, the length of the examination and the varying ability of people to maintain focus under pressure conspire to cause even the brightest and most knowledgeable make stupid mistakes here or there. I suppose the allowance for the number of wrong answers is at least partially meant to cover for the eventuality of inadvertent mistakes.

Only, when the passing score for an exam is 70%, doesn’t it translate into validation of your knowledge at no more than C-?

Which, coincidentally, could allow someone with superior testing skills, enough common sense and only an average knowledge of the subject matter to successfully navigate the examination.

I’ve never failed an important qualification test in my life. But on most occasions, I could probably teach the subject at hand myself. That Series 7 examination was the only time until now that I was not a practicing expert in the field; a rigorous corporate preparation program ensured that I became at least a theoretical expert by the time I needed to take the exam.

Today was just the second time that I went for a professional certification in a field in which I do not consider myself an expert. Oh, I am far from a newcomer to the discipline; many of its components are a natural part of what a technology manager does day in and day out; some aspects of it neatly overlap with my skills obtained elsewhere. But rigorously following the prescribed practices – or even bothering to learn more obscure elements of professional lingo – was never high on my list of priorities. Nonetheless, I started feeling recently that getting another certificate under my belt was a career-enhancing move.

So I studied a little. I made sure that I knew every acronym and label, that I recognized each proper mathematical manipulation for a given type of data-oriented question. More than anything, I relied on common sense.

I was more or less confident in 81% of my answers. Adjusting for stupid mistakes that I surely made but also for possibly guessing right some of the remaining questions, I would estimate my score to be anywhere between 73% and 86%. Between C and B. The testing system did not provide me with much details beyond congratulating me for passing; it did mention that I was “proficient” in two knowledge domains and “moderately proficient” in three others. Sounds to me like average. I did not overextend myself in order to get an average passing grade, passing being the operative word. So, the exam was a piece of cake, in hindsight. But it surely takes some shine off my new certified designation to know that it was not challenging enough to obtain.

Maybe, I just hate getting average grades.

And the amusing fact I mentioned in the beginning? I did fail one single certification test in my life, although technically it was not immediately important at the time. When we moved to New Jersey from New York in 1999, I went to the Motor Vehicles office to change my driving license. I had to pass the written test, which would be achieved by answering 15 questions out of 20 correctly. I only managed 14. After having been driving for years on the streets of Brooklyn, I must have completely forgotten then that rules of the road did actually exist – at least, in theory – in other places… Two weeks later, I aced the test on the second try, but that blemish will stay with me forever. Oh well.