Can Certification Exams Trump College Finals?

Girl in college computer course

There's a fascinating news nugget in this week's Certification Watch newsletter that summarizes a recent CompTIA blog post on the integration of IT certification at Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University (WGU), which has offered an online curriculum since the late 1990s. This institution uses certification exams where possible to replace tradition final exams for relevant courses. I've been seeing a move to incorporate IT certification elements into college curricula for some time now, and see what's happening at WGU as a logical and desirable extension of this transition.


At present, WGU may be the only higher-ed institution actively seeking to replace final exams with cert exams, but it's far from the only school that either accepts IT certs in lieu of classroom hours, attendance, and completion; or that incorporates certification elements into its curriculum. (Though many such incorporations include BOTH final exams for the academic element, and cert exams for the credentialing element).


The "big online IT schools" — DeVry, ITT, Capella, University of Maryland, University of Phoenix — and LOTS of community colleges (including my own local and sizable Austin Community College with around 40,000 students from the greater Austin metro area) all include IT certification classes in their regular IT-focused education tracks. Many academic institutions (community colleges in particular) also include certification in adult and continuing education programs.


Why might a cert exam make a better assessment and evaluation tool than a final exam? The one-word answer is "psychometrics." That is, the vast majority of certification exams, including those from Cisco, Microsoft, CompTIA, VMware, and so forth, go through a much more lengthy and rigorous development and vetting process than do the final exams that college instructors put together. Questions are subjected to testing and analysis, and only those that really help to differentiate candidates who know the subject matter from those who don't make the final cut.


Thus, it's arguably true that cert exams do a better and more thorough job of assessing and demonstrating measurable levels of skill, knowledge and proficiency in those test-takers who manage to achieve a passing score. Though grading based on such scores requires extra effort to decide how to create a grading curve, that's a relatively straightforward elaboration to tack on top of the scoring information provided for individual test-takers. Especially in a situation where 30 or more students are taking the same test on the same material at the same time.


I'm actually a pretty strong believer in the value of certification exams as a way to identify those individuals who possess an acceptable level of skills and knowledge in the subject matter being tested. That's why I have to applaud the incorporation of certification coverage into college curricula in general, and WGU's decision to replace finals with cert exams when circumstances permit.


Frankly, if it were possible to invest the same level of effort and money in developing question banks and selecting actual questions for other final exams that don't fit the certification mold, then I'm pretty sure that the quality of education, and the skills and knowledge of those who pass such exams, couldn't help but be improved thereby. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that higher education officials heed and learn from this potential life lesson on testing techniques — but I definitely won't start holding my breath waiting for it to happen.


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About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.