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Why Certification?

August 17, 2016  | By  | 2 Comments

This is a question we ask many organizations seeking to develop a certification program. It’s not that we want to turn away business, but rather a way of probing organizations to see if they really know what they are asking for, and understand all that is involved in developing a program of quality and integrity. Given the confusion within terminology (certification, certificate, micro-credential, accreditation, etc.) many organizations think they want to develop a certification program without working through the reasons for doing so, and without really understanding what certification is. Once we have established that certification is the type of credential the organization wants to develop, the next question is to determine the need certification will fill that is not currently being met.

Professional Testing is developing a program for “Safety Certification Transportation Project Professionals™”, the myriad of workers and planners across the country responsible for the health and safety of workers, contractors and the public across all modes of transportation. When we probed the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) with our two leading questions, they answered the first—why certification—to develop a standard of safety for the industry specifically targeted at project professionals, and when we asked about the need, they responded “elevate safety, competence, and trust within the industry.” We thought these were really good answers. Organizations develop certification programs for many reasons, including:

  • provide a standard for an industry where none exists;
  • assure greater comparability and consistency among certified persons;
  • elevate the reputation of an industry or profession;
  • own a body of knowledge;
  • provide opportunities for advancement for certified persons;
  • provide current and relevant, job-based credentialing options for individuals.

One of the challenges organizations face is explaining to their constituents the rationale for developing a certification program. Why certification and not more training? One approach for presenting certification to stakeholders is to highlight the major components of certification programs, and to show that certification is more than training and testing. Let’s start with the most visible component of a certification program—the exam. What’s unique to certification programs is that the assessment—which can take many forms, including multiple-choice, practical/performance, essay—is based on the duties, tasks, knowledge, skills and abilities required to perform a job at a pre-determined level of competence. Simply stated, it’s job-related, unlike training or CE that may have an assessment to determine if the learner obtained the intended learning objectives. The certification exam is developed with experts in this type of measurement and assessment, in collaboration with subject-matter-experts (SMEs). The purpose of the exam is to separate individuals who meet the competency requirements associated with job performance and pass the exam, from those who do not, and fail the exam. Since certification is job-related, the content of the exam must be current and relevant, which requires the exam to be updated periodically. The outcomes of training or CE typically end with the course. Certification programs are “moving targets.”

Most certifications do not permit individuals to “walk in from the street” and test. Many have work experience and other requirements such as education, abilities in a necessary skill-set, or specific training in a related area such as safety to qualify for the exam, commonly referred to as “eligibility requirements or prerequisites.” Establishing eligibility requirements helps applicants determine if they will qualify for the certification, and certification organizations set the qualifications in a manner that does not intentionally or unintentionally disqualify individuals or groups from earning certification. The best eligibility requirements align with the competency requirements of the exam, and only ask applicants to present with qualifications they need to likely succeed on the exam (if they study, of course.) Then the exam makes the final determination as to who becomes a certified. As with the exam, when competency requirements change, the eligibility requirements should be reviewed for continued alignment.

Since certification is competency-based, certified persons must show they continue to meet the competency requirements of the certification. Therefore certification is awarded for a period of time during which certified persons must demonstrate their continued competence, commonly referred to as recertification. This can be demonstrated in many ways, for example, continuing education, training, related learning events, continued work experience and retesting. As with eligibility, the recertification requirements should align with the competency requirements and should not disqualify individuals or groups from maintaining their credential with unrelated requirements such as membership in an organization. Unlike training or CE, certification is not “one-and-done.” This alone, requires a higher level of accountability among certified persons—another good reason to develop a certification program.

A final component of a certification program is the requirement of certified persons to uphold and abide by a code of ethics or standard of conduct, a statement of objective and measureable tenets that delineate the behaviors and norms expected of certified persons. The code is applied to raise the awareness of the integrity associated with certification, and to provide a level of trust to the public being served by the certification. Failure to abide by the code can result in sanctions, including revocation of the credential. The code also reinforces that the designation awarded to a certified person, for example, the certified “Transportation Project Professional,” is not owned by the individual, but rather, the certification organization. This places the certificate “on loan” to the certified person and conditional to meeting all program requirements. This elevates the level of accountability to both the certification organization and the certified person.

The stakes for certification programs can be quite high as hiring preference may be given to certified persons, job advancement may recognize certifications, and regulatory boards may look to certification as a reliable standard. With stakes that can become this high, the development of certification programs requires a high level of expertise among credential builders and SMEs. The work must also follow industry standards in testing, measurement, governance and administration. The standards utilized by Professional Testing in developing the Transportation Project Professional include:

  • American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education, & Joint Committee on Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. (2014); and Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: AERA
  • ISO/IEC 17024: Conformity assessment—General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons administered by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Compliance with these accepted industry standards assures that each component of the certification program is of quality and integrity thereby reducing risk to certification organizations. Certification organizations should be confident that they are awarding certification only to the individuals worthy of earning it.

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