Credentialing Trademark Search

If you are in the process of developing a new credentialing program, one thing you'll want to do when considering a designation and associated acronym for the certificants or certificate holders is to conduct a a trademark search.  In case you don't know where to start, here's the link to conduct the search.

Many associations have their legal counsel conduct an official search for them, which is great, but it's still a good idea to do your own search so you can rule out some obviously "taken" choices early on.

Can Certificates be Required?

I received a question yesterday about the ASTM E2659 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs and thought others might benefit from hearing the answer.

The question was related to the clause: (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.

The question asked if it was a violation of if if the certificate is required to practice a certain aspect of a profession?  The answer is no.  This clause prevents a certificate issuer from making misleading and confusing claims about the type of credential granted.  The certificate issuer should state that a certificate is issued for the attainment of a training program's intended learning.  They should not state the certificate holder is certified or licensed (or anything other than that a certificate was issued) since those credentials are not the outcome of a certificate program.  However, if attainment of a certificate is required by some entity for individuals to act in a certain role, that is a different issue and is fine.  An certificate issuer can state what what the role of the certificate is since these are truthful and not misleading statements.

As real life examples, two of organizations that recently had their certificate programs accredited by ANSI operate under this scenario. FDA’s “New Hire Investigator Training Certificate” is required to become an FDA Investigator and the US Army’s “CP 12 Safety Professional Certificate” is required to become a Safety Officer in the US Army.

Certificate Programs - Some Clarifications

At a recent meeting I ran into several of you who thanked me for this blog and commented on how informative and helpful it has been...and politely reminded me it's been quite a while since I've posted!  Thanks for the much needed nudge; I'll try to return to more regular postings.

I've been hearing a lot misinformation about certificate programs so I'll use this post to hopefully clear up a couple of things.

First, at the November ICE (formerly NOCA) conference, I heard several consultants / speakers indicate that certificate programs are a good option for organizations to implement when 1) the target market is too small to support a full scale certification program, or when 2) the organization doesn't have the resources to develop certification.  I respectfully and emphatically disagree.  These are both inappropriate reasons for an organization to develop a certificate program.  A certificate program is not a back-up option for certification.  The decision as to which credentialing program to develop should be based upon what the program is intended to accomplish, not the size of the market or resources of the organization.  The appropriate reason to develop a certificate program is that your target audience has a knowledge or skill gap that can be addressed through an outcomes-based training program.  Certification programs do not address knowledge or skill gaps; on the contrary, they recognize those who demonstrate they already have the knowledge and skills within the scope of certification.

Second, I continue to hear people mistakenly believing that ICE collaborated with the American National Standards Institute (ANS)I to develop the ICE assessment-based certificate standard.  ICE solely developed this standard.  I do understand why many are confused.  The ICE standard bears the label "ANSI/ICE 1100..." but it's important to understand that the labeling does not imply any collaboration or endorsement of the content of the standard.  There are thousands of standards that bear the ANSI prefix; when it is applied to a standard that means that the standard developer (in this case, ICE) followed the minimum procedures required by ANSI to have the standard designated as an American National Standard.  It is not an indication of collaboration or endorsement of the standard.

Regarding certificate programs, the ASTM E2659-09 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs is also an American National Standard.  ASTM chooses to not use the ANSI prefix since most of its standards, while used in the U.S., are also used globally.

ANSI's Accreditation Division extensively reviewed both the ICE standard for assessment-based certificates and the ASTM certificate program standard and selected the ASTM standard for use in its accreditation system.  More information on that decision and selection process can be found here.

This past summer ANSI began a pilot test of its certificate program accreditation.  Applications were due in August, and ANSI assessors reviewed the applications and supporting documentation and then conducted site visits this fall and winter.  The ANSI Accreditation Committee recently met, and this week ANSI will announce its first class of accredited certificate programs.  I'll post more about that as soon as the announcements are made.

Article on Test Item Analysis

Here's a really good article for organizations needing or wanting to ensure the quality of their tests.  It describes how to calculate item difficulty and item discrimination in Excel and SPSS (and explains what the results mean).   While most certification programs outsource measurement functions to testing agencies, organizations offering certificate programs and post-tests of training courses would benefit from using these basic quantitative measures to examine the quality of their tests.

Certificate Program or Certification?

I spent last week in DC training ANSI Certificate Accreditation Program assessors and accreditation committee members on application of the ASTM E2659-09 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs.   After that 2 1/2 day intensive training, we then conducted a 3 hour training webconference for the organizations that have been accepted into the pilot being conducted this summer.  It was an exhausting but exhilarating week!  The talent convened to implement this program is incredible (a press release will be issued soon outlining the individuals and organizations involved). 

We had so many rich discussions that I can't possibly summarize them all here, but I will try to highlight some of the more important points.  A critical element (in fact the foundation of the training) was in ensuring everyone was clear on the distinction between certification programs and certificate programs.  The American National Standard, of course, provides the needed clarification.  Here's the table I often use to show the distinctions:


So, one of the key distinctions is that in certification, you may verify education/training received elsewhere (as an eligibility requirement), but you are not providing required training; you are assessing current knowledge and/or skill.  In a certificate program, in contrast, you ARE providing the required training/education and then assessing for attainment of the intended learning outcomes of that training/education.  So, the focus of certification is on the verifying past education and experiences and assessing current knowledge and skill.  In certificate programs, the focus is on providing the needed learning and evaluating attainment of it.

Also important, unlike certification (and more like a degree program), a certificate program does not have ongoing requirements and therefore cannot be revoked.  Once you receive a certificate, it's yours forever; there are no continuing education or re-examination requirements to maintain it.  However, certificate issuers should assign a term of validity to the certificates in order to inform stakeholders of the currency and relevancy of any given certificate.   (Note, that if it is determined that the content of the certificate is unchanging, then the term may be indefinite.)  Consider, as an example the American Heart Association CPR certificate which has a term of validity of 2 years.  There are no ongoing requirements to "maintain" the certificate, and it is never officially revoked.  But if you want or need a valid certificate,  you need to successfully accomplish the training/assessment again.

I'll cover designations more thoroughly another time, but the key point here is that both certification and certificate programs can issue designations and associated acronyms.  It is important, however, that certificate issuers that confer them do not state or imply the individuals are certified or licensed.  Programs that make this implication will not be in conformance with the standard/accreditation requirements.

As always, feel free to contact me if you have specific questions about the certificate program standard.

ANSI Press Release

The official ANSI press release regarding the selection of the ASTM International Standard Practice for Certificate Programs has been posted to its website.

As the technical lead on the ASTM standard, I've been asked to lead the training of the ANSI Certificate Accreditation Program (ANSI-CAP) Accreditation Committee and assessors, which of course I enthusiastically agreed to.  This is such an exciting and needed program, and I very much look forward to helping ANSI in its implementation.

Certificate Programs and Designations

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 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.

Certificate Standard Update

I've had a couple individuals assume that the certificate standard mentioned in various sources recently is the standard that I've worked on.  I need to clarify that it is NOT.  The standard that was recently published is the NOCA Standard for Assessment-based Certificate Programs.  I am the technical lead for the Standard Practice for Certificate Programs developed through ASTM International

I've been asked by many so I did want to share that the ASTM standard has been finalized in content and just awaiting review and approval by the ASTM Committee on Standards that reviews all ASTM standards to ensure all procedural requirements have been met to designate this standard as an American National Standard (ANS).  The final ANS is expected to be published in March.  Also, I should clarify that although NOCA published its standard, it has not been designated as an ANS. 

When the ASTM standard is published, I'll post access information here at Beyond Certification. 

Also, I appreciate reader Amy Smith's recent comment to this blog; she said:

"I'm not sure if the key stakeholders of this process realize how balanced you have been on this issue. It has been great to watch you weigh both sides of the topic and come to a rational decision and pursue it faithfully. It's never easy going against the grain, but I honor your bucking the "Always Done It That Way" mentality. Growth is never easy but I'm really glad that you are helping to lead the way."

Amy had the opportunity to see the contentiousness of this situation while she participated in a joint meeting of ASTM International and NOCA stakeholders.  I very much appreciate her support, as well as the support others (including many of you!) have given me.  It has not been easy taking a position in opposition of my own professional association.  And there certainly have been consequences.  But also great rewards.  And, most importantly, if I could do it all over again, I would again make the decision to support the ASTM standard rather than NOCA's because it is the right course for the industry, and a course I will continue to pursue faithfully.

More on Consensus

In his comment, Jamie Notter points us to his blog post which shares an excellent definition of consensus.  It describes two critical components of consensus: a high level of commitment to a chosen course of action and a strong shared understanding of the rationale for the decision.  Take a look at the post, it makes some important points.

Kevin Holland also points out that associations should not utilize a formal consensus process on every decision they make.  AGREED!!!  Talk about anti-nimble, and that's certainly not where associations need to be.  Some decisions just need to be made, and quickly, period.

In the post, I am specifically talking about developing industry standards, and there I do believe consensus is critical.  But, I also wanted to clarify that I am not advocating that all associations should become ANSI-accredited as developers of American National Standards.  That path is right for some, not for others.  My point is that the option is something all standard-setters should be aware of and give serious consideration as to whether or not it has value for them.  Of course any organization can develop processes consistent with the principles put forth by ANSI (and ISO, the International Organization for Standardization) without being formally acknowledged. However, for some, the benefit of third-party verification of quality is significant - and that's what accreditation can give you. 

Take the certification industry standards, for example.  There are many, including:

ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024: General Requirements for Bodies Operating Certification of Persons (2003) American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Washington, DC. 

Development, Administration, Scoring and Reporting of Credentialing Examinations (2004), Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation (CLEAR), Lexington, KY.

Principles of Fairness: An Examining Guide for Credentialing Bodies (2002), National Organization for Competency Assurance and Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation, Lexington KY.  

Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs (2002) National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) of the National Organization for Competency Assurance,  Washington, DC.

Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (1999) of the American Educational Research Organization, American Psychological Organization and the National Council on Measurement in Education).

There is only one standard on this list (ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024) that I can be ASSURED was developed following the quality principles of consensus, balance, transparency, due process and others.  Does that mean the others aren't good standards?  No.  Does it mean the processes they followed were bad?  Of course not.  But, absent conformance to any formally documented standards development process, all we have to go on is our trust in the standards developer.  My question: in this era of consumer distrust, is that enough?  If you're a standards developer, that's a question to take to heart.

On Consensus

Consensus is a word that is often misunderstood and misused.  On one extreme, some think consensus requires unanimity.  On the other, some think it's a simple majority.  Neither are correct.

If you work to develop standards (and I know many of you do!), having consensus means that the majority agree with the final outcome AND that there was an opportunity for all views to be considered and an attempt made at resolution.  The second element is crucial!  Here's an interesting resource from MIT on building consensus.

In my work this year assisting ASTM International in developing an American National Standard for certificate programs, I've seen first-hand how challenging and time-consuming - but also how important - the second element can be.  We received majority approval on our first draft of the standard back in September, but there was a negative ballot cast along with several affirmative ballots with substantive comments.  It would have been easy to just adopt that version of the standard since the great majority approved of it.  However, that would not have been consensus - thus it also would not have met the ANSI essential requirements for developing American National Standards.  So, we kept at it.  We reconsidered, revised and reballoted the standard several more times, and each time it got better, significantly better.  And even though there were definitely times where I griped and moaned about the process, now that we have a final standard, I am so thankful for that process because the resulting standard is so much stronger for it.

I know I have been involved in many association efforts where a key concept, position or standard that could impact the industry represented was adopted based on a simple majority - and often that group wasn't even representative of the population impacted.  I urge all of you to consider how key decisions / approvals are made in your organizations.  Do they represent consensus?  If you develop standards for your industry, I urge you to take a look at the ANSI Essential Requirements: due process requirements for American National Standards and consider how your process stands up. There are many associations that are accredited developers of American National Standards through ANSI.  This is something I would also urge you to consider, if you haven't already.

It's interesting to me that so many certifying bodies develop standards that would not meet these Essential Requirements.  Why is that?  Perhaps it's time for change.