What can you expect from the new version of A+ exams?

If you're thinking of pursuing CompTIA's A+ certification, you need to know about upcoming changes. As you'll see, there's more to it than just simple updates to the exam topics.

Over the past few years, CompTIA has created a number of certification exams covering everything from home electronics (HTI+) and networking (Network+) to the Internet (i-Net+), instructional training (CTT+), and document management (CDIA+). No matter what else it offers, though, the CompTIA name has long been associated with one of its first—and most successful—entries, the A+ certification.

A+ is an entry-level IT certification of core computer knowledge that consists of two exams: A+ Core Hardware and A+ Operating System Technologies. You must pass both of these exams to earn the certification. Over the years, the exams have been updated occasionally, with new topics replacing older ones that are no longer relevant in the workplace.

The objectives for the next round of updates are now available. According to the CompTIA timeline, beta questions (unscored) will be interspersed in the current exams during the third quarter of this year to collect feedback. In the fourth quarter, the current exams (referenced as the 2001 objectives) will retire on the same day that the new exams (known as the 2003 objectives) will go live.

CompTIA's site offers complete lists of objectives for the new hardware and operating system exams. Let's take a look at the subtler details of the certification upgrade.

Understanding the life of the certification
The A+ certification is one of the few currently available that is good for life. Although the exam objectives update and change, those who have already met the requirements of passing a version of the hardware test and software exam do not need to recertify.

Even if you passed the exams in 1998 and then went into a coma for five years, when you awaken and want to rejoin the workforce, you can honestly state that you are A+ certified. Don't worry that you've never heard of USB or any of the newer technologies; once A+, always A+.

In that spirit, the two exams you pass do not even need to be from the same version. So, for example, if you pass the hardware exam today (2001 objectives) and then wait until December to pass the OS exam (2003 objectives), you'll be just as certified as everyone else.

Farewell to adaptive testing
A few years back, many of the certification vendors toyed with the adaptive testing format that Novell had had great success with. If you could cut exam time down to minutes instead of hours, they reasoned, you could get more people to take the exams. But the community that should have been grateful for the shortened exams balked that the technology was not foolproof and there was a great margin for error. Faced with the significant costs in creating adaptive versus standard exams, almost every vendor abandoned the adaptive concept, with the one major holdout being the two A+ exams.

However, that's changing with this release of the A+ tests: From now on, there will only be standard versions (approximately 90 to 100 questions each). CompTIA said that it is too difficult to beta test new exam questions in an adaptive format and not have them be scored. It wants to stick with standardized versions of the exams only and continually pad the tests with beta questions to see how well they reflect the other exam questions in live settings.

Think of another printing versus another edition
In book publishing, a publisher prints a number of copies of a book and ships them to a warehouse for distribution, as needed, to bookstores. When the warehouse runs low on books, the publisher can do any number of things. One choice is to produce a second edition of the book, revisiting the text and making liberal changes. Another choice is to do a second printing and essentially just print more copies of the same book, with the option of expanding some topics, fixing errors, and moving some things around.

The 2001 versions of the A+ exams truly can be thought of as second editions (even though it was not the first upgrade since the inception of the certification). Many areas were revisited and significantly changed; entire domains were dropped or combined. The 2003 versions of the exams are much more like second printings. They differ from the 2001 versions, but the differences are much more like tweaks and refinements rather than whole scale revamping.

If you are studying for the exams now and don't think you'll be ready for the tests by the time the changes go into effect, it's not the end of the world. By adding a few more topics to your study list, you'll be able to take the 2003 tests with little additional study.

The weighting has shifted
The major topic areas on CompTIA exams are known as domains. Each domain carries a weighting that determines what percentage of exam questions will come from that area. On the OS exam, Diagnosing and Troubleshooting has been reduced so that it's almost half as important as it previously was, while Installation, Configuration, and Upgrading has doubled in importance. Table A shows the old and new weighting for each domain.

Figure A
Weighting for A+ OS Technologies exam objectives

Diagnosing and Troubleshooting was also reduced in significance on the hardware exam, while Basic Networking almost doubled. Table B shows the old and new weighting for each domain.

Figure B
Weighting for A+ Core Hardware Examination Objectives

Only one objective category appeared beneath Basic Networking in the old version, and there are three objective categories there now. The topics beneath those categories will appear familiar to anyone who has studied for CompTIA's Network+ exam.

Think historically
CompTIA makes no bones about it: These exams do not test on cutting-edge technologies. They focus on the tried and true. Just because the exams are being updated does not mean that you don't need to know the old topics as well as the new.

There is an increased focus on wireless and connectivity, but commands like the MEM, ATTRIB, ECHO, TYPE, and the others are still on the list of things to know.

Expect overlap
In the real world, a utility that can be useful during installation can also be helpful during troubleshooting. The A+ exams reflect this reality and have a great deal of overlap between objectives, and even between domains.

Knowing this can aid your study. By looking for topics that repeatedly appear, you can identify which topics you must master before taking the exams. For example, IEEE1394 appears nine times in the 2003 objectives. (It appeared only twice in the 2001 objectives.) Here are some other topics that frequently appear in the new objectives:
  • Cooling systems
  • FDD
  • HDD
  • Heat sink(s)
  • Infrared
  • Network Interface Card (NIC)
  • Removable storage
  • SCSI
  • Storage devices
  • Touch screen
  • USB
  • Wireless

Hands-on experience requirements reduced
The amount of hands-on experience in the field or a lab setting has changed. This number represents a recommended prerequisite, and it has gone from six months to 500 hours. In a full-time job, there are 2,080 work hours in a year. If you round down to 2000 to adjust for vacation time, there are 1,000 hours in six months, and the 500 hours means that the recommended prerequisite has just been cut in half.

Windows Me and XP were added as exam topics, but apparently there is no need to add anything on non-Microsoft operating systems. It would seem that those supporting Linux and UNIX don't need to know anything about hardware. So in that 500 hours of entry IT time, you are expected to get exposure to Windows 9x, Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, Windows 2000, Windows Me, and Windows XP. (You also still need to know some solid DOS.)

Emmett's recommendation
I have always believed that the A+ certification is an excellent first step for anyone wanting to add IT acronyms to his or her resume. It is an entry-level certification verifying a basic knowledge of computer topics. I do not recommend it for anyone already holding an administrator-level degree. The latest revisions to the certification are minor and do not effect the topic areas to any great degree.

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