Today, I bit the bullet, spent the money, and took the test.
And passed. By the skin of my teeth, but I passed.
I can now call myself a Microsoft Certified Professional (70-270) (Installing and Administering Windows XP Professional), having gotten the minimum passing score of 700. This represents the first of seven tests that I need to take over the next few months; once all seven tests are passed, I will be able to call myself a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer - and a Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator, as the set of tests that I intend to take are such that I will qualify for both.
This is a good thing, because it will allow me to go to my boss, and show him that I have done it, and that therefore I should be rolled over into the new Civil Service IT title that requires MCSA or MCSE certs - which will represent an immediate raise of over $5K per year, and could be as much as $15K per year (there's some ambiguity in the way that Civil Service law is written - since I'm effectively doing the work without the title, my time in the lower title may well qualify me for higher levels within the new title - which would mean more money).
The Microsoft certifications are well-thought-out; they require that you have good comprehensive knowledge of the topic for which certification is being sought. There is an emphasis on Microsoft's theory rather than practical experience, and that distorts things somewhat, but they do provide for commentary on individual questions, and I made liberal use of that facility to explain where and how my experience disagreed with their theory. They say they consider all feedback, and use it to improve their courses and tests.
Next up: The Windows Server 2003 core requirements for the MCSA.