Disappointed with Zend’s PHP5 Certification

I’ve never been a huge fan of certification. Although I understand it is supposed to help gauge an industry benchmark in a given field, I often feel like it’s given the IT world a generation of good test takers who are not necessarily good designers. Still, I’ve programmed with PHP on my own for years and want to eventually move my career path towards that direction. I decided to get a one up and try for my Zend PHP5 certification. What I came away with was a massive sense in disappointment in Zend’s entire certification process.

I bought the package deal from Zend’s website which included a study guide, ten practice tests and a voucher for an exam. First of all, the study guide wasn’t a study guide but a PHP manual repeating a lot of documentation that can be found on the official PHP website. I had passed four of the practice exams, two with a score of ‘Passed’ and two with a score of ‘Excellent.’ Needless to say I was surprised when I failed the actual PHP5 certification exam.

The actual exam’s questions barely intersected with the material on the practice exams. Many of the questions weren’t even covered in the PDF that Zend labeled a “Study Guide.” I checked online to see if there were similar reactions over the certification test. I found one post on the Zend forms by a user named Nick A Williams that looks as if it were lost after Zend preformed an upgrade to their bulletin board software. The following is taken from the search engine cache of the forum1.

I must say I am very disappointed with the certification program so far. I have found the practice exams and study guide to be very misleading while preparing for the exam.

ZCE Study Guide
The very existence of a study guide suggests its purpose is to adequately prepare the reader for the real exam, covering everything the exam questions will ask. This is extremely misleading and actually reduces the value of the book, as it is clear that there are things asked in the exam that are not touched upon in the study guide.

Without explicit indication of this, a potential exam taker such as myself would have no reason to believe further studying beyond the scope of the book is necessary.

Online Practice Exams
I have found these practice exams to provide absolutely no value whatsoever. I have yet to fail a practice exam (having taken 6 so far), 3 of which were scored as “Excellent” yet I have now failed the actual exam twice. This would suggest that the practice exam does not help one to determine his/her readiness for the actual exam. If this is the case, what is the purpose of the practice exams and why does it cost money to take them?

Zend has established the expectation that if one passes the practice exam, the likelihood of passing the actual one is very high. A quote from Zend’s website:


The questions on the practice test are different from the ones used in the real exam, however, they are also more difficult and complex-thus, if you score well on this exam, you should be comfortable that you are well-prepared to take the real test.

Combine this statement with the scores I received, and one can see how easily one can be convinced they are prepared for the real exam when, in fact, they are not.

Purchasing practice exams is supposed to help mitigate the potential for having to purchase re-takes of the actual exam (spend $20 for a 10-pack, aovid another $125 for a re-take). Instead, it has achieved the opposite – providing test-takers with a false sense of confidence (which is quickly shattered upon completing the actual exam).

So the nutshell version?

Test takers: Don’t bother with the study guide or the practice tests. Just RTFM and maybe read everything in the manual realted to the study guide’s section headings. Do that and you should be fine.

Zend: Adjust the descriptions for both the practice exams and study guide in your store to avoid confusion. Inform customers that the study guide is no substitute for the PHP manual. Remove your current practice exam description, and suggest how to properly use the practice exams for studying.

I hope the adoption rate of this certification program is indeed more important to Zend than the sales volume of books/practice exams/real exams. More certified PHP developers will add far more value to your business objectives than a few pointless sales1.

I don’t want to sound whiny about this at all. After all, certification exams should be somewhat difficult, be challenging and show an aptitude for the technology or language being tested over. Still, I do agree with Mr. Williams statement about how the practice material didn’t relate accurately to the actual exam. Whether this is simply due to Zend not updating their training material or if it’s an intentional attempt by Zend to gain money out of retests is unknown.

I also found some interesting concerns about PHP5 certification in the comments to a post from Michael Kimsal’s weblog back in 20082, showing that if the material is simply out of date, it has been for a very long time.

From Evert
I’ve tried the Zend Certification Training, I thought it was absolute bullshit (about 1/2 years ago). The exam tested on things like order of parameters and lots of stuff that can be found in the PHP manual. It’s much more important for new hires if they have problem solving skills, including being able to go to the manual, instead of memorizing it. Real skill comes from experience and being a good PHP developer means writing maintainable, secure and scalable code. Not being able to know the manual inside-out.
And another from Rb:
FYI: I took the PHP architect PHP 5 certification class, studied the PHP 5 Zend certification guide, took the online practice tests and passed. I have been coding PHP for 6 years. Yet I failed the Zend certification test. The test feedback was non-existent. I feel I am a better coder because I have studied. I will not waste my time to take the Zend Certification exam again.

Having been in Java web development for over three years, I also feel like I’m slowly being priced out of the market. Although tools like Spring have eased the burden of Java development in some ways, I still feel like scripting languages like PHP, Python and Ruby are vastly superior in web development to Java.

The horrors of Java Server Faces (JSF) attempt to turn the web into a component based system that HTML was never intended for. Like its .NET competitors based around C# and VisualBasic.NET, I think JSF abstracts way too much of the underlying HTML and makes it very difficult to accomplish the same tasks accomplished easily and cleanly in scripting languages and frameworks.

Although I feel gaining PHP5 certification would open me to more opportunities in that job market, I do not believe it will make me a better programmer at this point. I may simply focus on creating more tutorials and release some of my own custom framework designs to show my knowledge in the field. I’d hope that good potential employers would look past my resume to my portfolio.

1 Certification Exam – Very Disappointed – PHP Certification – PHP support & tips – Zend.com. Retrieved from Google Cache on March 4, 2010. Original cached December 30, 2009

2 PHP certification views? Michael Kimsal. May 27, 2008. Retrieved on March 4, 2009.

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