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The world of certifications, exams, and assessments is a complicated one. Added to that, many of the words that we use in the certification industry have very specific meanings that may not align to their common, everyday usage. I know this can be confusing and challenging to keep everything straight if you’re not immersed in this every day, and even when you are—see, for example, my team, even makes mistakes and I often have to correct them. So, I thought it would be helpful to define and explain some of the most misused or misunderstood terms. What makes something a certification vs. a certificate?


A certification is an independent evaluation of knowledge and/or skills. This means that it doesn’t matter how you got the skills, only that you have them. This is important because you can earn a certification without taking training or learning. If you already have the knowledge, skills, and abilities being assessed, you don’t need the training, and we shouldn’t require it to earn a certification. From a psychometric perspective, the hallmarks of a quality certification are:

  • We have confirmed that you are who you say you are (identity verification),

  • We have ensured that the person who submitted the work is the person who did the work (proctoring),

  • Passing the exam does not require taking a prescribed learning path, and most important from my perspective,

  • We have ensured that the evaluation process is psychometrically sound.

By psychometrically sound, I mean that the evaluation is:

  • Valid (measuring what it’s supposed to be measuring and not something that is irrelevant (like test taking ability) to the content domain),

  • Reliable (repeated measurements yield the same results all things being equal (if you don’t change your test preparation strategies, odds are you’ll get the same score each time you take the exam), and

  • Fair (all test takers are treated the same or have the same opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills).

In addition, as an organization employing certification holders, you should also consider[1]:

  • Is the certification program from a significant provider of your IT infrastructure?

  • Is the certification program aligned to roles that are relevant to your organization’s current and future requirements?

  • Are the skills represented by the certification program evolving with the technology?

A certificate is the artifact that you receive after earning a certification. To complicate things a bit, in the world of exams, assessments, and tests, you can also earn an assessment-based certificate. These are based on training; in other words, you will most likely need to take the training in order to pass the assessment as many of the questions will be specific to that learning opportunity.


We distinguish an exam, which is tied to a certification, from an assessment, which is linked to training, for this very reason. If you take an exam, it’s an independent evaluation of skills; if you take an assessment, it often is not. Because we are providing a customized learning path specific to the new skills as part of our certification renewal process, I fought hard that the evaluation at the end be called an “assessment” rather than an “exam.” Although you won’t find the exact answer to the questions in the learning materials, we have designed the learning materials in a way that provides a very targeted means to prepare for the assessment. While you don’t need to complete the learning materials to take the renewal assessment, the modules included are focused on what is covered by the assessment and doing so will certainly increase the odds that you pass it.


Confused by these distinctions? You’re not the only one. Check out these great resources that do an excellent job of differentiating the different types of credentials in the marketplace:

Differing Types of Workplace Credentials – YouTube

Accreditation Type Chart One-Pager (



Now, that you have a better understanding of what makes something a certification, let’s look at a few certification-related terms and how Microsoft defines them.

  • Active certification: A certification that you have earned that has not expired. This is in contrast to an ‘inactive certification,’ which is one that has expired or no longer has value in the industry.

  • Certification dashboard: Your “one stop shop” for everything related to your active and past certifications and certification exams. You will also find links to help you register for exams as well as view or download badges, certificates, and transcripts of your certification accomplishments.

  • Certification history: Two years after a certification retires, it will move to the “Certification History” section of your transcript. Any certifications that have expired will also move to this section of your transcript.

  • Certification renewal (renew): If your certification is still active, you can renew it and thus, extend the expiration date. If you do not renew your certification, it will expire and become inactive. Once it expires, you will need to re-earn the certification by completing the certification requirements as if you were starting over.

    • Certification renewal assessment: The set of items that you must complete and pass to demonstrate your ongoing competence to extend the expiration date of your certification.

  • Certification expiration date: The date after which your certification will no longer be active, meaning that you have not revalidated your ongoing competency and skills in the job role or specialty. If your certification expires, you must re-earn it.

  • Fundamentals: Earning a fundamentals certification validates your foundational understanding with mixed concepts and applied learning of Microsoft technologies.

  • Recertification: Re-earning the certification as if you are starting from scratch.

    • Note that Microsoft’s use of “recertification” is a bit different from many other certification programs because our candidates find it confusing to differentiate renewing a certification from having it expire and having to re-earn it. If you renew it, you have not let it expire; if you recertify, you have and must re-earn it.

  • Role-based: Our certifications are aligned with industry leading cloud-based job roles. Earning one of our role-based certifications demonstrates that you have the key knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform in that job role using Microsoft platforms and technologies.

  • Retired certification: The certification can no longer be earned. This typically follows the retirement of the associated exams.

  • Specialty: Earning a specialty certification validates deep technical skills and ability managing industry solutions, including third party solutions, on or with Microsoft platforms and technologies.



Remember, to earn a certification, you must pass one or more exams. Here are some common exam-related words and how Microsoft defines them:

  • Item: A question on an exam; these can take many forms from multiple choice to drag and drop to active screen to labs (we don’t call them ‘questions’ because they may not always take the form of question).

  • Exam: A set of items that you must answer in a specified period of time in a secure environment after proving your identity. You must pass one or more exams to earn a certification. Exams do NOT expire, but they do, however, retire. Retired exams can only be used for one year after they retire to meet certification requirements.

    • Beta exam: The first release of an exam that is designed to get psychometric information on each of the items, so we truly understand how an item works in an exam-like situation. No matter how good an item is on paper, there are always issues that reveal themselves during the beta process that no one could have predicted otherwise. To learn more about beta exams, visit: About Microsoft Certification exams | Microsoft Docs.

  • JTA (Job task analysis): The detailed process of outlining all knowledge, skills, and abilities that are needed to be successful in a given job role, specialty, or content area. This can take on many different names depending on a certification program’s goals (e.g., competency analysis, practice analysis, task analysis, etc.), and although the output will be different, the process of how you get to that end point is fundamentally the same… so this process can be (and is used) even if the certification, exam, or assessment is not strictly a job role.

  • Live exam: The version of the exam that results in near immediate scores when someone takes it. This version has incorporated all of the beta feedback and remains available until the exam retires.

  • OD (Objective domain): The list of knowledge domains, skills, or tasks that are covered by the exam. This is a subset of what was identified in the JTA.

    • Skills outline document: Based on the OD, it defines the target audience and lists the knowledge, skills, or abilities that will be assessed on the exam.

  • Retired exam: The exam can no longer be taken, but if the exam is one of several certification requirements, it can be used to fulfill the certification requirements for up to one year after it retires. For example, MB-200 is used as one requirement in several functional consultant job role certifications in Dynamics 365. That exam is being replaced by PL-200. However, if you have passed MB-200, you can use this exam to meet the requirements for those functional consultant job role certifications for up to one year after it retires… so if you have passed MB-200, be sure to pass the other exam in your certification path within that year so you don’t have to pass PL-200 to meet the requirement. This is confusing, so I’m hoping the two tables below will help clarify how this works:

On or before December 31, 2020:

On or before December 31, 2021:


Passed MB-200

Pass MB-210, 220, 230, or 240

Earn the associated functional consultant job role certification


On or before December 31, 2020:

On or after January 1, 2022:


Passed MB-200

Pass MB-210, 220, 230, or 240

You will need to pass PL-200 to earn the associated functional consultant job role certification



  • Continuous learning: What you should be doing every day! With the pace of change in technology and the daily growth of new information, to remain successful, you must continue to learn. Invest in yourself by completing a self-paced learning path on Microsoft Learn or taking a course through one of our Learning Partners.

  • Instructor-led training (ILT): In-depth structured training courses facilitated by an instructor. They include hands-on elements, are based on Microsoft Official Courses, and provide more personalized attention and support in the areas where you need it most through your interactions with the instructor. Most ILT courses are multiple days.

  • Learner: You!

  • Learning Partners: Training organizations around the globe that have met minimum program requirements to be able to publicly teach Microsoft-developed training content via Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCTs). More information on Learning Partners and the markets they serve can be found here.

  • Learning path: Learning paths on Microsoft Learn are collections of learning modules that are organized around specific roles (like developer, architect, or system admin) or technologies (e.g., Azure Web Apps, Power BI). When you finish a learning path, you’ve gained a new understanding of different aspects of the technology or role you’re studying. You also earn a trophy!

  • MCTs (Microsoft Certified Trainers): Our premier technical and instructional experts in Microsoft technologies who lead ILT courses provided through Learning Partners; some are free-lance while others are employed by Learning Partners. Because they have completed rigorous training and have met stringent technical certification requirements, they are the only instructors qualified to deliver Microsoft Official Courses. Learn more about the MCT program.

  • Module: Modules on Microsoft Learn are the building blocks of the learning experience. Think of a module as a course that contains a collection of related units, such as videos, labs, and articles. When you finish a module, you’ve gained a new skill that relates to your role and target technology. You also get a badge!

  • Microsoft Learn: Microsoft Learn is the place to start and customize your learning journey with up-to-date content developed by experts and a variety of resources. Choose from free self-paced learning, instructor-led training, and certifications, covering existing and newly released Microsoft technologies. Learn more in this video.

  • Sandbox: The Microsoft Learn sandbox is a free environment you can use to explore Azure through Microsoft Learn content. It‘s a temporary subscription that’s added to your account which allows you to create resources for the duration of a module. Microsoft Learn automatically cleans up the temporary resources for you after you’ve completed the module.

  • Training: Designed to help those who want to acquire a new skill, chase a new career path, and stay up to date on the latest technological advances.

Are there other terms that you don’t understand or are confused about? Let me know. I’m happy to clear up what I can.



[1] Source: IDC white paper, sponsored by Microsoft, Benefits of Role-Based Certifications, June 2020, #US46572820

Brought to you by Dr. Ware, Microsoft Office 365 Silver Partner, Charleston SC.