By September of this year Steve Linton had lined up half a dozen prospects for jobs at his company. Linton oversees recruiting at On!contact, a maker of customer-relationship-management software in Cedarburg, Wis. He's the first to admit that his knowledge of computer-programming languages like Java is limited. Still, Linton had to hire people who had the Java skills to help On!contact expand its Web site's capability. To determine the applicants' technical competence, Linton says, he needed an expert to verify that he was "on the right track" with the people he was considering.

He might have turned to a traditional testing outfit, the sort that dispatches a tester to an employer's office and screens job applicants in person. Instead, he picked ReviewNet Corp., which conducts tests entirely online in, among other things, JavaScript development. A few years ago, of course, no online alternative would have been available. Today, however, a variety of Web-based companies compete in the skills-testing market. To test the testers, Inc. asked a panel of 10 CEOs to evaluate five of the most prominent sites, which measure ability in a range of tasks from complex programming to spelling.

As for Linton, he describes himself as a satisfied ReviewNet customer -- not surprising, perhaps, given that Inc. asked his opinion at the testing company's suggestion. Yet before Linton and On!contact's vice-president of technology, Sam Vaynshtok, had settled on ReviewNet, they had spent two weeks shopping for a skills-testing service.

Linton had quickly ruled out the traditional brick-and-mortar companies. "Online testing makes it really easy," he says. "If a candidate has a computer and Internet access, he can take the test from the comfort of his own home, and I don't have to send the tests back and forth for processing. It's a matter of convenience."

What's lost in the online version, say the companies that test in person, is a measure of security and some sophisticated test features that they can offer but that many Web sites can't because of bandwidth constraints. During an online exam, "you'll never know exactly who is sitting in front of that computer," notes Mark Savery, the product-development director at OPAC, a testing-software company based in Sacramento, Calif.

If there's a common denominator among online sites, it's their emphasis on computer-skills testing. Among the five sites reviewed by our CEOs, ReviewNet is in a class by itself: its focus is entirely on information-technology skills. The other sites gauge not only clerical skills but, in some cases, knowledge of everything from accounting to medical terms.

Linton could have paid as little as $10 a pop for a basic computer-programming test that was available on one IT-skills-testing site, but he decided to spring for ReviewNet's $50-a-test offer. ReviewNet won out, he says, because he thought its test was more comprehensive and because he liked an unusual feature on the site that asked a series of questions to plumb a candidate's confidence and personality.

Payment schedules vary from testing site to testing site. Brainbench, too, charges $50 a test. Webvaluate.com, a site run by Presenting Solutions, typically collects $25 a test for each applicant but also can require a $250 annual fee for customized service. Prove It charges $25 a test, plus a $99 onetime initiation fee. AssessNet offers its tests for a bargain-basement average price of $5 apiece, although at the time of the reviews it had only sample tests available online.

Two of the sites -- AssessNet and Brainbench -- provided free access either to sample questions or to entire tests. To get our CEOs entrÉe to the tests of ReviewNet and Prove It, which don't make sample questions available without a password, we arranged for our judges to register with aliases so that they wouldn't receive special treatment. The fifth site, Webvaluate, asks its customers to call a sales rep to arrange for a demo test, which our CEOs did.

Once you're a customer, all logged on and signed in, which of the five sites is most able to help you in assessing a job applicant's skills? Here's what our CEOs had to say.

www.assessnet.com
What it's good for: Clear graphics and layout. One CEO praised the site's "simple screens that aren't overloaded with information."
Don't waste your time if: You're interested in previewing a lot of tests online. There's only a limited number of sample tests available for browsers.
What our CEOs had to say: The site needs to provide better descriptions of its products. The choices are "not properly summarized," said one CEO. Another criticized the site because the navigation bar appeared only on the home page.
What you ought to know: This spring four-year-old AssessNet introduced its first prepackaged (and less expensive) tests. However, only sample tests were available online at the time of our panelists' inquiry, which might explain why some of the CEOs found the site confusing and limited.

www.brainbench.com
What it's good for: A wide range of tests and good descriptions of the contents. "They had current tests, and the questions were well written," one reviewer commented.
Don't waste your time if: You want a sense of human warmth. One CEO suggested that the site "could use more of a human touch with pictures and graphics."
What our CEOs had to say: The site offers a large variety of tests and is easy to navigate. "The tests were quite challenging, and it was easy to register and take a test" is how one panelist put it. However, one reviewer disagreed, saying that the "navigation could be consolidated and the descriptions much more concise."
What you ought to know: Brainbench seeks individual customers as well as companies. It encourages individuals to take tests at their own initiative, obtain certifications, and post rÉsumÉs on the site. The test results are posted in an online database, which companies can search for a fee. The strategy has attracted some big investors: Thomson Learning and Manpower have poured millions of dollars into Brainbench.

www.proveit.com
What it's good for: Good sample tests. One CEO remarked, "You got a feel of how it actually would work using their site if you purchased their services." He also liked the format in which the scores were returned to prospective employers.
Don't waste your time if: You're looking to show candidates a personal touch. One panelist thought the site "had big-company, autocratic overtones. The administrator can configure the setup to get test results and not provide them back to the test taker. That's just not our style."
What our CEOs had to say: The reviewers liked the site's layout. "It was a professional Web site visually, it was acceptably easy to use, and the number and variety of tests seemed exceptional," one CEO said.
What you ought to know: Prove It is a product of Know It All, which in turn is a division of TalentPoint, a well-established recruiting and training company based in Wayne, Pa. Know It All and TalentPoint merged in March and have filed for an initial public offering.

www.reviewnet.net
What it's good for: Rigorous IT testing. After trying his luck on a test, one CEO joked, "I am lucky that we have talented engineers here .... I guess I am not one of them."
Don't waste your time if: You're looking for nontechnical tests. ReviewNet focuses solely on technology-skills testing.
What our CEOs had to say: The panelists were somewhat critical of the site's navigation but liked the tests. "With improvements in the navigational elements, this would be a good place to start screening a large number of applicants," one reviewer said.
What you ought to know: The site also allows the potential employer to monitor an applicant's test in progress and interject questions while the test is under way. For example, if a test administrator wanted to get at a test taker's thought process, he or she could ask on the spot, "How did you come up with that answer?"

www.webvaluate.com
What it's good for: The high-quality content of its tests. "They had well-thought-out tests that could be helpful in measuring an employee's skills," one reviewer said.
Don't waste your time if: You want to quickly check out the site, take a demo, and get pricing information right up front. The site requires visitors to call a salesperson to obtain prices and set up a demo test.
What our CEOs had to say: Opinion was a bit mixed. While one reviewer found the site was "good for the initial screening of candidates in clerical and certain technical fields," another observed that the text was "uninformative."
What you ought to know: Presenting Solutions, the company behind Webvaluate, opened the site for business only recently. The company has offered skills-testing software since 1992 and maintains a second site, www.presol.com, for purposes other than testing. On the second site the company promotes its off-line testing software, which is called Pre-valuate. One CEO found the multiple names confusing, saying that it was hard to tell which tests were available where.

The bottom line
A top scorer was ReviewNet, because of what our panelists saw as its high degree of reliability in assessing a test taker's skills. It was the only site that the judges unanimously said they would be likely to recommend to others, although not all of them were entirely happy with its design and accessibility. Brainbench drew kudos for its content and, to a lesser extent, for ease of use. Webvaluate ranked high in reliability, and one judge gave it exceptionally high marks for content. The panelists appeared to be frustrated with AssessNet, which several of the CEOs considered hard to navigate. And there was a consensus that Prove It had yet to fully live up to the challenge of its name.

Kate O'Sullivan is a researcher at Inc.


The savvy entrepreneur's guide to online test sites

Comments
Would our CEOs go back? Would our CEOs recommend using the site? What is the site good for? CEOs' quick take
www.assessnet.com Maybe. Probably not. "Good graphics, professional-looking site." "Did not give an actual feel for a real-world situation."
www.brainbench.com Probably. Probably. "Very informative and full of content." "Easy to register and take a test."
www.proveit.com Maybe. Maybe. "A good site for managing and administering tests." "Probably targeted to businesses with pressing manpower needs."
www.reviewnet.net Yes. Yes. "Underlying testing structure was very strong." "Lots of potential but needs some cosmetic work."
www.webvaluate.com Maybe. Probably. "Tests were thorough and useful." "Well-thought-out tests."
Grades
Ease of navigation Selection Ease of use Reliability Average grade
www.assessnet.com C B- C+ B B-
www.brainbench.com B+ A- B+ B B+
www.proveit.com B B A- B B
www.reviewnet.net B- B B+ A+ B+
www.webvaluate.com B- B+ A A- B+

Our Panelists

Rick Davis, CEO, Ants.com
Brian R. Geisel, CEO, Alogent
Mark K. Holland, CEO, Ascend HR Solutions
Adam Honig, president, Akibia Inc.
Wayne Jared, partner, Inspired Design
Paul Kraaijvanger, president, Verza Inc.
Deborah Pine, principal, PreVision Marketing
Alan Rudy, CEO, Express-Med Inc.
Bill Sherwood, president, Progressive Software Solutions
Kris Tufto, CEO, Jasc Software Inc.


Please e-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.