What to Do About Brain Dumps: Part 1

Originally Published in Certification Magazine, 1/2002

“Brain dump” is a term used to describe Web sites where certification test questions are posted. Supposedly these questions have been submitted from memory by test-takers who have recently taken the actual certification exams. The goal of brain-dump sites is to make a little money selling test questions to help people pass certification tests.

Do brain-dump sites help? No…and yes. I’ve seen a number of these sites and have examined the questions they have to offer. For the most part, what I’ve seen would not be very helpful in preparing a person to pass an actual certification test. First of all, there are usually big holes in the content. Second, sometimes only the main section of the question is provided, without the options. Third, and most common, many of the questions are inaccurate, not representing the actual questions well and not presenting technically accurate information. With this kind of “help,” the inexperienced and less knowledgeable might even be at a disadvantage.

But let’s suppose for a moment that the questions on these sites are technically accurate and represent at least a good portion of the content on the actual exam. What should be done about the sites that list such questions?

I just finished reading an online article on the legal action CompTIA recently took against a brain-dump site. And before discussing the article, I want to say up front that I completely support CompTIA’s right to use legal action to protect the privacy and copyright of its exams. What these sites are doing is illegal. The article itself was accompanied by 20 to 30 responses from certificants and candidates, some in favor of what CompTIA did and some not.

Are there conditions under which a brain-dump site might be useful? Perhaps. If the questions on the certification test are not well written and do a poor job of representing or supporting the actual skills needed to perform on the job, the brain dump may be the only option in preparing for the test. While not referring to any particular organization’s test, this was expressed by one person who commented, “I can’t really blame people for resorting to these guides when you look at some of the exam questions I have seen on the exams. Those questions are not a straightforward evaluation of an individual’s understanding.” Another wrote, “They (the questions) do not test real world. That is why I use dumps. I know the material in real life. I just use the dumps to pass the test.” Still another, “After seeing some of the arcane questions being asked that in real life never happen, I (am) glad I saw some beforehand.”

It is a fact that some certification exams are not built according to published standards for high-stakes test development. Some programs fail to conduct a proper job analysis or neglect this step altogether. Later in the process, questions might be written that fail to measure important job skills. Or the questions may be produced by inexperienced writers and might contain any number of flaws. These problems, and others, are seen often in IT certification tests as programs fail to recognize the value of following professional standards of test development.

Alternatively, some programs produce good exams with good questions, but fail to properly inform candidates of the test’s purpose and the skills it is trying to measure. If candidates could examine a list of skills measured, it would be easy to positively evaluate a high-quality test. Also, most organizations fail to publish the metrics of test quality, namely, reliability and validity. Such information would boost test-takers’ confidence and reduce the motivation to use brain dumps.

Certification programs would have you believe that using brain dumps is a form of cheating. And perhaps it is, in a sense. However, I believe that a vast majority of candidates would not use such sites if the tests were constructed better, the skills the tests measure were published and the evidence was presented that shows the test is doing its job. These simple steps would probably put the brain-dump sites out of business

David Foster

President and CEO, Caveon Test Security