Microsoft's practice exams need some work

After all the hoopla surrounding Microsoft's decision to provide practice exams on its site, you'd think they'd at least work. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case for one self-confessed Microsoft-dependent tech.

You wouldn't expect Microsoft to offer self-test practice exams, since brain-dumping is abhorred by the Microsoft Certification community. So when Microsoft announced that it would be offering self-administered practice exams on its Web site, it generated a lot of buzz.

One of Microsoft's antipiracy managers, Dave Swartzendruber, is the point man for finding and shutting down brain dumps, both offline and online. He explains how Microsoft avoids crossing its own "line in the sand" on brain dumps in this article. Basically, he says that certain questions—depending on how they are phrased—may not constitute a breach of the nondisclosure agreement (NDA) that everyone taking a Microsoft Certification exam must sign.

Regardless of why Microsoft feels that practice exams are an appropriate way of preparing certification candidates, it's made a massively disappointing effort in this area.

Skills assessment
The Microsoft Training and Certification site is the portal for Microsoft certification candidates, but if you want to jump straight to the practice tests, go to the Microsoft Skills Assessment site. There, you can take some sample exams (hosted by As of this writing, there were a few security exams and about half a dozen Windows 2003 exams. You can take any or all of them as often as you like.

One of the only cool things about this site is the right sidebar, which shows the highest, fastest scorers. You can try to get your own name on that list, which is an excellent way of turning a boring process into something like a video game. Unfortunately, that raises the specter of paper certifications again. Kids like games.

Practical trial
For this review, I tried to take the Microsoft Skills Assessment test for Introduction to Microsoft Windows Server 2003. I wasn't able to complete the exam because it crashed about halfway through, and not very gracefully. There seemed to be a problem with some of the ASP.NET controls that were designed for that site. Instead of seeing the control, I saw debug info. I didn't have to pay anything for the experience, but I still felt like I wanted my money back.

If you have a Passport, you can register for an enhanced version of the practice exams. Unfortunately, that link took me to the free exams as well. Also, the exam crashed about halfway through again. That's when I noticed that none of the scores in the sidebar were higher than 47 percent for any of the 4,813 test-takers.

Exam preparation
After the serious disappointment with the Skills Assessment Practice Exam, I checked out the Exam Preparation site. The page layout appeared to be a bit more mature. There was more content, and the design was more informative.

To select a practice exam, I drilled down to 70-300, Analyzing Requirements and Defining Microsoft .NET Solution Architectures, since it's my favorite one. Unfortunately, it didn't have any sample exams. Instead, it referred me to and

I'd like to say that the self-test tools on the Microsoft site are so bad because Microsoft hasn't had the time or resources to do it well, but I can't honestly say that. There's no reason for any large U.S. corporation to have such an embarrassingly ineffective Web presence. It can put up a weak site, or even no site, but certainly not a broken site.

I'd also like to say that I think Microsoft will probably fix it up nicely, but I don't. The fact that it partnered with means that to a great extent, it's at the mercy of that company to do it up right. But that's not a slam against As long as Microsoft wants to make the service available but is not willing to manage it in-house, it's unlikely to get that Microsoft touch that would make it a globally marketable product.

I really dislike writing a negative review without getting some feedback from the subject, so I called Microsoft's SouthCentral regional office. I got an automated response telling me to press zero to talk to a live operator. I pressed zero and got the same message, telling me to press zero to talk to a live operator.

I'm seeing a trend here, and I'm too married to Microsoft to like it.


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