I've promised that I'd post some educational posts about the ANSI/ASTM E2659-2009 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs. I thought I'd start with the most controversial topic, designations. The ASTM standard allows the granting of designations with appropriate safeguards. In contrast, the NOCA standard (ANSI/NOCA 1100 Standard for Assessment-Based Certificate Program) fully restricts the granting of designations and associated acronyms by certificate issuers.
In drafting the ASTM standard, we recognized early on that the issue of granting designations was a problematic area since certificate issuers currently do grant the use of designations that could easily be confused with those of certifying agencies. The question became: should designations be completely restricted or was there a way to ensure only accurate and responsible use? We ultimately determined that the latter approach was the appropriate path; following is the rationale.
Fully restricting certificate issuers from granting designation use seemed at first to be a reasonable path and was the original position considered. However, we could not find sufficient justification for this restriction. In our research we found that organizations grant designation acronyms for a variety of program types. Certifying and licensing boards grant designations to certificants and licensees, respectively. Professional societies grant designations for certain categories of membership and types of honorees, such as Fellows and Diplomats. Our brief online searches for “membership designation” and “fellow designation” alone yielded page after page of existing examples (hundreds, if not thousands), including many from reputable, well-established societies. In addition, we found that companies use designations and associated acronyms to designate certain levels of employment. And, organizations have long been conferring designations and associated acronyms for certificate programs; this is not a newly introduced concept. As one prominent example, for the Institute for Organization Management (U.S. Chamber of Commerce), program graduates are issued the designation, “IOM.”
It became very clear that there is a long history of designations being used by a myriad of organizations for a multitude of reasons, and that designations were not a clear determinant of certified or licensed status, as has been asserted by NOCA representatives. Given this and the recognized market value of a designation, we felt it inappropriate for a standard to restrict the competitiveness of certificate programs. However, it was clear that there needed to be measures taken to ensure appropriate use.
The problem occurs when certificate issuers use designation acronyms that state and/or imply an individual is certified or otherwise credentialed; this could clearly confuse the public so this is where the Standard Practice for Certificate Program focuses. It is important to note that the standard does not encourage the use of designation acronyms, but they are allowed only under certain conditions that ensure differentiation from certification and licensure. The standard's Section 7.1.2 addresses this:
“A certificate issuer may grant a designation or designation acronym or both to certificate holders only under the condition that the designation and/or designation acronym granted shall not include the words “certified,” “certificated,” “licensed,” “registered,” or “accredited” or in any other way imply such statuses.”
Section 188.8.131.52 further ensures accurate and responsible uses of designation acronyms:
“The certificate issuer shall represent the certificate program and its purpose, scope, and intended learning outcomes in an accurate and responsible way.
(1) The certificate issuer shall not state or in any way imply that certificate holders are certified, licensed, accredited, or registered to engage in a specific occupation or profession.”
Section 5.1.2 provides even more assurance to the public by requiring that the issuer is an appropriate and qualified issuer of the certificate (so that a non-medical society would not issue a medical certificate, for example).
“The certificate issuer shall be an appropriate and qualified issuer of the certificate.”
Further, in our conversations with the existing certificate issuer community, we found that several certificate issuers that currently issue a designation acronym in the “Certified XYZ” format said while they would likely be unwilling to stop using a designation, they would likely be willing to change it to a format that would conform to the standard. We concluded, then, that current certificate issuers would likely ignore a standard (since it is voluntary) that restricts the use of any designation (like NOCA's). A restriction stance, then, would simply result in a continuation of current certificate issuers in granting designations that state and/or imply certified status. In contrast, the ASTM standard stance on designations would actually assist in ridding the marketplace of the confusing certificate designations that imply certification.
Thus, we have found that allowing the use of designation acronyms with the appropriate safeguards increases the likelihood of broad adoption of the standard while at the same time prevents the use of those designations that would be confusing to the public and other stakeholders. This is consistent with all aims of the standard.