Microsoft exams move to pass/fail grading

Gone are the mysterious numerical scores you used to find on Microsoft certification exams. In their place are sensible pass/fail results. See why Erik Eckel says this is a positive change.

The rumor has been floating around for a while. I first heard about it in December. Then last week, I was finally able to confirm the switch with Redmond: Microsoft certification exams will now be graded pass/fail. Gone are the days of the mysterious minimum score, whose method of calculation was a mystery to everyone outside of Microsoft.

In case you’re not familiar with Microsoft certification history, Redmond used to provide a minimum passing score for its exams. When you completed your test, you’d receive a report that not only listed your total numeric score but also broke down your performance in each of the exam’s different sections. The idea was that you could help identify your weaknesses and strengths by seeing how you performed in each section. The section-by-section report was removed months ago.

For many months, test takers have been receiving only their final numeric score and a horizontal bar indicating their performance compared to the required minimum passing score. That was my experience when I sat for the Windows 2000 Professional exam last summer. Now the numeric score is gone, too. Take an exam, and all you’ll receive is a simple pass/fail report.

I think it's good
There’s much to be said for simplification. I think IT certification exams can benefit by losing the complicated scoring system that often proved nothing but confusing.

Besides, only once in my life have I taken an exam that required a 100 percent perfect score. I was working at United Parcel Service, where I was required to memorize Zip codes for sorting purposes.

No one has ever expressed even a remote interest in my certification exam scores. In fact, as I mentioned in a recent column, no one’s ever asked to review my MCSE exam transcript, either. In the IT certification world, for all practical purposes, all that really matters is whether or not you pass an exam.

Gauging difficulty
If you used to rely upon an exam’s passing score to gauge its level of difficulty, Microsoft has done you a service by taking the focus off of the numeric score. There’s no rhyme or reason to exam scores, at least not in my opinion.

I’ve taken exams with relatively high minimum passing scores, such as the Windows NT Server 4.0 exam (with a 733 minimum passing score) and the Internet Information Server 4.0 exam (with a 727 minimum), and passed them without much fuss. I passed the Windows NT Workstation 4.0 test, which boasted a 700 minimum passing score, in less than 14 minutes.

Meanwhile, the most difficult exam I’ve ever taken wasn’t the college literature test on Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, which I didn’t even know I was going to have one fateful Thursday in 1987. In fact, I hadn’t even read the book. I still have nightmares about that experience. Really. But I digress.

The hardest exam I’ve ever taken was Microsoft’s Windows NT 4.0 in the Enterprise test. Its passing score was a deceptively low 560. Halfway through that exam, I resigned myself to the fact that I had failed. I was sticking around only to learn what else was covered on the exam so I’d be better prepared the next time I took it. You can imagine my happiness when I passed.

After that experience, I quit looking at minimum passing scores or even at the score I’d achieved. I learned to study the material, learn as much as I could, and then hope for long green bars signifying that I’d passed my test.

Eckel's take
Numeric exam scores, especially when no one outside Microsoft knows how they’re calculated, mean nothing. What’s important is whether you pass. Moving to a simple pass/fail keeps you focused on what’s important: gaining sufficient knowledge to pass the exam and not worrying about how an exam is scored or what the minimum passing score might be.

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