The worst test I ever took

I’m gearing up (finally) to take the CISSP, a 250-question marathon of an exam that covers everything from firewalls and intrusion detection systems to how tall the fence or wall around a building should be and what kind of lights to use in a parking garage.  And everything in between. Three of my colleagues have had CISSP certifications for several years, and on Friday two of them were telling me what to expect.

And the worst test I’ve ever taken came to mind. No, it wasn’t Security+. I had a pretty good idea I was going to pass that one, which I did. The worst test I ever took was Dr. Walter Johnson‘s Fundamental Macroeconomics (Economics 1) makeup final at Mizzou, circa Winter 1994.

We all knew the formula behind the legendary Walter Johnson’s tests. He had a huge bank of questions stored in a computer database. And when he needed a test, he just told the computer how many questions he needed, and it generated a test. I can’t remember whether everyone got the same test, or if every student saw a different set of questions. The latter would have been harder to pull off, and much harder to grade, but would have made it virtually impossible to cheat.

What I know for certain is that the regular test and the makeup test were different. And I got stuck taking the makeup test.

It wasn’t my fault. I don’t know if the problem still exists, but in the 1990s, Mizzou had no idea how to schedule finals, so they frequently ended up scheduling finals for two classes at the same time. That semester, my political science and economics finals conflicted. The political science professor, a visiting prof from another university, said he’d never seen anyplace else have that problem, but he knew numerous students were taking both his class and Dr. Johnson’s econ class. Precious few students escaped Mizzou without taking both classes. And when conflicts happened, Dr. Johnson had a policy. You took his makeup final.

I attended Dr. Johnson’s class religiously. I went to all of the lectures and all of the labs. Not only that, he had lectures at 8:40 and 12:40. Sometimes I’d sneak into the other lecture to hear it a second time, since I didn’t have a class at the other hour. I read all the assignments, did all the homework, and did everything you’re supposed to do. If I’d worked as hard at any of my other classes as I did for that class, I’d have gotten an A. But I struggled. His class was supposed to be a weed-out class, one of those classes that separated the college material from the rest. And it worked. His class was the last I saw of some of my classmates, and his class weeded me out of the honors college.

To this day I’m not completely sure why I struggled, because I remember more from that class than I do from most other classes I took. I think I had a high C or perhaps even a B in the class going into the final. I was hoping for a good showing on the final to get a B in the class. I generally tested well, and my finals pulled my grades up more often than they pulled them down.

I nailed the political science final. Then I studied as hard as I could for the econ final. I woke up that morning feeling pretty good, but I arrived to a nightmare.

According to my recollections in mid-2002, the test was 40 questions. I do remember going through the test one pass, answering all the questions I knew the answer to, then going back for subsequent questions to take care of the rest. And do you know how many questions I absolutely, positively knew the answer to?


Well, in 2002 I said two. I think I knew three of them. Either way we’re talking a first-class ticket to F-ville.

So then I went through a second time, eliminating the crazy answers and trying to pick the best one out of the remaining questions. That might have worked for another three. I was no longer hoping to pull my class grade up at this point. At this point I was starting to wonder if I would pass.

A large number of the questions had no good answer, and the best answer depended on your political persuasion. Knowing that Dr. Johnson leaned Republican, I opted for the conservative answer when there was a doubt and hoped for the best.

And some of the questions had no slam-dunk answer, and no good conservative answer. On those, I just had to debate between choosing c by default or guessing.

I don’t think I ever saw my score, just my letter grade. I know I didn’t ever see the correct answers. I ended up with a high D on the final and a C in the class. I can’t imagine I scored any better than 20 percent. I don’t know if those of us who took the makeup test were on our own curve, or the curve with the rest of the class.

The first few times I took CISSP practice tests, I scored pretty poorly. But I could have taken the CISSP cold any day in the last four years and scored higher than I did on that economics final–except CISSP isn’t graded on a curve.

After barely surviving Dr. Johnson, the CISSP doesn’t scare me too much. After all, I can take the CISSP a second time if I have to.

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4 thoughts on “The worst test I ever took

  • December 18, 2011 at 1:54 am

    Been there, good luck!

  • December 18, 2011 at 11:30 am

    First of all, good luck on the CISSP. My co-worker has hers, and said it was tough, but not brutal. I’m working on the CEH right now myself and it’s mired in command line switches and arcane trivia. It’s less knowledge and more trivia facts.

    I took Macroeconomics in 2000, one of the few classes I needed to wrap up my Associates that I had been working on for 10 years. It was “online” and a terrible experience. We were required to join a chat room once a week and ask two questions about that week’s assignment. We also had to participate in an e-mail list and an online forum. It was a lot more work than simply going to class would have been.

    I didn’t understand a single thing in that class. We got to take our finals online from home as well. I set up my laptop next to my computer and dumped all the chapters of our online study book into a big text file. I then took the test on one machine while searching for answers on the other. I think I made a C in that class but I was really glad just to get it over with.

    • December 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm

      I have a coworker who’s studying for CEH, and I read one of his books over his shoulder as we sat on an airplane on one trip. That’s the impression I got–command-line switches, and maybe being able to recognize a Unix command vs. a Windows command when you see it. A lot of stuff any competent professional would look up anyway with the –help or /? switches before entering the command to avoid doing anything damaging.

      I really think I understood that macroeconomics class better than my grade suggests–when two windbags get on TV on Sunday morning and argue economic policy, I understand the arguments and counter-arguments, but I think that class steered me in a different direction. At the time I took the class, I was torn between wanting to write about politics or technology for a living, and that class pushed me a few steps in the direction of technology instead.

  • December 18, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Dave, I’m one of the poor SOB’s that (ISC)2 uses to review the question pool. I can personally assure you that I’m pretty sure we’ve pulled all the questions with no right answers.

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