Most large IT departments rely on the Microsoft certified professional (MCP) qualification as a guarantee of aptitude using Microsoft technologies, but until now it has tested candidates on multiple-choice questionnaires. Because candidates can pass these simply by memorising facts, departments are left with little idea of their practical abilities.
Philip Virgo, strategic advisor at IT lobby group the Institute for the Management of Information Systems, said, "Multiple-choice testing is widespread and it is an issue not just confined to Microsoft. Most large-scale, low-cost qualifications rely on multiple-choice questionnaires and there has been a lot of grumbling about that.
"In reality most people do not do much practical assessment - at the end of a course they do a multiple choice exam. All that proves is that they attended the course and were awake."
He said Microsoft's decision to move towards better assessment of practical skills was "extremely good news".
"It is something that everybody has called for and I expect to see other big software firms follow this move."
Microsoft is introducing the Simulations Positioning Framework - software that runs on a PC to emulate real problems that IT professionals would face.
Ram Dhaliwal, Microsoft training and certification manager, said, "It does not test what they can remember, it tests the performance of a particular task. It is more about problem solving and planning."
Dhaliwal said the change in approach was in response to demand from candidates and IT departments wanting more rigorous testing of how candidates would cope with real-world situations.
Although such simulation tests have been available for top-level architects, they required an external examiner to be present. Because thousands of people take the MCP exams every year, this was not practical, so Microsoft developed a PC-based system.
The system, developed with Microsoft examination partners Pearson VUE and Prometric, will initially be available for Microsoft certified system engineer and system administrator qualifications. It will eventually be introduced across the full range of MCP exams, Microsoft said.