Accreditation Adds Legal Defensibility

How does achieving accreditation for a certification or certificate program provide legal defensibility for the program?
1) It means you developed your program in conformance to an industry-recognized standard (ASTM E2659, ISO 17024 or NCCA, as examples). In other words, you didn't just make up your own quality rules.
2) By achieving accreditation, you have third-party objective confirmation that you conformed with the standard (versus first-party verification where you say you followed the standard), second-party (a consultant or vendor says you followed the standard - they are separate but not independent since they liked worked with you to create or implement the program) vs third-party (the accreditor - such as ANAB or NCCA - who provides a formal, independent verification). 
Caveat: I am not a lawyer and don't even pretend to be one on TV.

Certificate Program vs Certification - What's the Same? What's Different?

Though I've covered them before, there is so much confusion between certification and certificate programs, it’s worth another look at them. Many groups promoting their certification program really have a certificate program or perhaps a hybrid of the two programs.

Certification and certificate programs are both voluntary credentials issued to individuals, but despite their similarities, certification and certificate programs also have significant differences. 

The primary distinctions between them are in their focus and design. The focus of certification is on assessing current knowledge and skills and identify those who meet the minimum criteria established. In a certificate program, the focus is on educating or training individuals to achieve specified learning outcomes and identify those who have achieved them.

An organization grants certification after verifying an individual has met established criteria for proficiency or competency, usually through an eligibility application and assessment. While certification eligibility criteria may specify a certain type or amount of education or training, the learning events are not typically provided by the certifying body. Instead, the certifying body verifies through an application process education or training and experience obtained elsewhere and administers a standardized test of current proficiency or competency. Also, certifications have ongoing requirements for maintaining proficiency/competency and can be revoked if certified individuals do not meet these ongoing requirements.

In contrast, in a certificate program, an individual participates in learning events designed to assist him or her in achieving specified learning outcomes and the individual receives a certificate only after verification of successful completion of program requirements, including but not limited to an assessment of the learner's attainment of intended learning outcomes. The learning events and the assessment instrument(s) are both developed and administered by the certificate issuer, and there is an essential link between them. Also, certificates do not have ongoing maintenance or renewal requirements and therefore, cannot be revoked.

Individuals attaining a certificate usually are not granted a title and associated initial designation like certification (e.g., “Certified Association Executive” and “CAE”), but they may be. If one is granted, it's critical that the title or associated initials do not state or in any way imply that certificate holders are certified or licensed. 

The following chart that I developed highlights the distinctions between the two program types.

Cert vs cert p

These are the generally accepted distinctions and are in alignment with industry standards, such as:

ASTM E2659-18 - Standard Practice for Certificate Programs

ICE 1100: 2019 - Standard for Assessment-Based Certificate Programs

ISO/IEC 17024: 2012 Conformity assessment — General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons

NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs

However, many hybrid programs do exist in the marketplace (e.g., certification programs that require an educational component, certificate programs that have ongoing renewal requirements, etc.). However, before you decide to develop such a hybrid program, it is important to weigh the advantages of a blended program versus the disadvantages, such as 1) the potential for confusing stakeholders and 2) the possibility that a hybrid program would not meet the industry standards for either certification programs or certificate programs. 

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 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: 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 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 an educational 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 the 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.  A certificate issuer can state what regulations or employers require related to the certificate is since these are truthful and not misleading statements.

Certificate Program as Certification Alternate

I heard several conference speakers indicate that certificate programs are a good option for organizations to implement when the target market is too small to support a full-scale certification program, or when 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.

Article on Test Item Analysis

Here's a 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?

What's the difference?  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 the attainment of the intended learning outcomes of that training/education.  So, the focus of certification is on verifying past education and experiences and assessing current knowledge and skill.  In certificate programs, the focus is on providing the needed learning and assessing the 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 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 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.  

Can Certificate Issuers Grant Learners a Designation?

I serve as the convener and technical lead on the ASTM E2659 standard. Early on, 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 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.  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.

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.