Leading Learning Podcast on Credentialing
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.
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.
Handling Retired Certificants
Retired certificants aren't usually considered in policy-making...at least until a huge portion of the pool is about to retire. Organizations logically fear the financial implications of losing a large portion of certificants. That's understandable, but not a good enough reason to jump on the certification retired classification bandwagon. There are many issues here that need to be considered.
First and foremost, organizations should have a policy covering use of the designation and associated acronym, and if an individual lets a certification lapse, he or she should no longer use the credential. That includes retirees. If the certification lapses, you no longer have it. Period. Organizations should have procedures for how to communicate this to individuals whose certifications lapse and to those who continue to use the credential despite being told otherwise.
Holding your certification / credential should mean something ...and if you have some individuals who are meeting ongoing competency requirements and others aren't, but they all hold the same credential, then the meaning is mixed. Some try to address this by having active and retired categories of certification, which is good in theory, but falls apart if they let all certificants use the same exact credential and no one other than the retiree and the certifying organization knows which category of certificant they are.
If your certification focus is on public protection, then you want to do your best to ensure your certificants are competent. Telling some certificants they don't need to do anything to improve or demonstrate competency anymore while still holding up the same designation as others isn't consistent with the public protection focus. If all use the same designation and/or associated acronym there is no way for consumers to know which are required. So, if you have decided you want a retired category, at minimum, clearly distinguish it with a different designation/acronyn - because it is a different credential.
Also, many of the retired classes of certification I've seen are based on age alone. But we all know that not everyone retires at 65. How do you know if they are practicing or not? One way to handle this if you have a retired class is requiring a signature attestation that the individuals are, in fact, retired from the role that you are certifying.
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.
Certification Prep Course
A frequently asked question in certification circles is: Who may not author or contribute to preparatory courses and exam study materials, or lead study groups related to the certification?
The only individuals prevented from contributing in this way are those who have been directly involved with certification test question writing – which sometimes includes certification board (CB) members. Item writers and CB members should sign agreements with the CB stating that they will not be involved in any activities which serve or could be interpreted to serve as preparatory for the certification exam for an established period of time extending beyond their related volunteer term (often 2-3 years).
An important distinction for CB members communicating with candidates is that they are free to talk about the process of certification and the content in general ways, but they should not be specifically training/preparing individuals to be successful on the certification exam. For example, they can certainly present at conferences and teach college courses; however, they should not lead courses that are promoted as preparatory for the certification exams.
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.
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.
Intro to Computerized Adaptive Testing
If your certifying agency is considering computer adaptive testing, you might want to look into Assessment Systems Corporation's workshop on June 1 in Minneapolis. The following topics will be covered:
- Rationale and basic assumptions of IRT
- Major IRT models and their parameters
- Estimating the latent trait, Θ, and its standard error
- Estimating item parameters
- Item and test/bank information
- Linking items to create an item bank for CAT
- Basic elements of CAT
- Types of CATs: CATs for equiprecise measurement, classification, measuring change
- What to consider before implementing CAT
- Implementing CAT
- Operational issues for some CATs: item exposure, enemy items, content balancing
Learn more here.
Going global with certification is a topic of interest to many, but few resources exist to guide efforts. Here's an article that's not new, but provides timeless advice. Don't forget to click on the links at the end too - one covers legal issues to consider. (Caveat: you may need to be an ASAE & The Center member to view.)
Also important to realize, there is an important distinction between a U.S. association offering a credential to an international audience and one offering global credentialing. The former occurs much more often. In this case, a U.S.-based association creates a credentialing program based on U.S. practice and standards and allows individuals in other countries to apply. In this case, those individuals will be required to know the U.S.-based terminology and standards even if they do not apply to them. In addition, the program likely won’t cover some terminology and standards important to practice in their country.
In contrast, a truly global credentialing system studies the practice in every country where the certification will be offered, identifies the universal standards that apply to all, and creates the program based on these universal standards. This, as you can imagine, is usually not an easy task for most professions since terminology, practice standards, and regulations often differ significantly by country.
The differences often lead associations to hybrid approach, including 1) creating the U.S.-based program first and later adopting other versions of it for use in other countries and 2) working with several nations to identify the universal set of standards, but then allowing individual countries to add standards to accommodate their local practice requirements.
It can be helpful to distinguish the program types using the following terminology:
- A national program is one that is based on standards that were developed and adopted by one country, yet individuals from other countries are allowed to apply for the credential.
- An international program is one that is based on standards that were developed and adopted by one country and applied to other countries.
- A global program is one that is based on universal standards collectively identified by all the countries involved.
- A multinational program is one that is based on a combination of universal and local standards. Representatives from different nations collectively define a universal set of standards, but they reserve the right to supplement those standards with ones that reflect their local conditions
National certification programs that allow international applicants are fairly common. However, how they handle international applicants can vary. Reciprocity and equivalency are forms to be familiar with:
- Reciprocity is mutual recognition by two countries of each others standards and/or requirements.
- Equivalency is the determination that a country’s standards and/or requirements are of equal content and quality of those of another country.