A Long Train Ride and a Brighter Future

In the early 1990’s I was visiting a new Novell authorized training center in Moscow, working out some pricing issues for administering Novell certification exams. While I was there, the owner of the center told me that a test was scheduled for that day in just a few minutes, and provided a few details about the certification candidate. It seems the man—I don’t recall his name—was from Yugoslavia and had just arrived in Moscow by train after 48 hours of travel. The center was a short walk from the train station and the man was getting ready for the exam to start. We were watching him from another room.

The test itself was one of the seven certification exams required for the Certified NetWare Engineer program and was a computerized adaptive test, or CAT. At Novell, we used the CAT format to more quickly come to a decision about mastery of the knowledge and skills. Previously, traditionally designed versions of the same tests were 70 items or more in length, with a 90-minute time limit. The CAT was designed to end with an equivalent decision with a minimum of 15 questions and a maximum of 25; the time limit was 30 minutes. Most tests ended, and an accurate decision made, when the 15th question was completed. It was with some concern that I watched the candidate begin his test, knowing that he had just travelled 48 hours and would be heading back to the train station for the trip home after completing the exam, pass or fail.

In just over six minutes he completed the test, answering 15 questions. His score and pass/fail decision had been provided to him on the screen and were printing out near us. Not wanting him to return home having failed the test I was very anxious to know the outcome. Novell tests were scored using item response theory and the score could be any number between 200 and 800. I don’t recall the exact score needed to pass, but I remember that his score was a single point above the mastery score. He had passed by the narrowest of margins! The center owner and I were tremendously relieved. We congratulated the man, chatted with him briefly and then he left for the station. During the brief conversation he expressed great relief that he passed and thanked us for the opportunity to take the test and gain his CNE credential. He said it would change his life where he lived in Yugoslavia.

For me, the term high-stakes is usually used casually: The test result is important or it is not. Mostly it’s an academic process. But to remind myself what the term high-stakes really means, I only need to recall that day in Moscow, and the hopeful determination of that certification candidate.


David Foster

President and CEO, Caveon Test Security

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