Best Practices for Certification Programs
In today’s certification universe, there are a myriad of offerings around numerous skills, job roles and disciplines, from school teachers to accountants to information technology. Directors and developers involved with a certification in one specific area of expertise might be inclined to think that there wasn’t much they could learn from a credentialing program that focuses on a different line of work. However, according to Wade Delk, executive director of the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA), all successful credentialing bodies have certain commonalities in their operations and assessment of professionals. These “best practices” are becoming more crucial as a rising number of employers use certification as a means to ensure their current employees and job candidates are qualified.
“Certification is becoming more popular,” Delk said. “Competency assurance is very, very difficult to achieve. We all strive for it. New people are coming into the field that don’t really have a good grasp of certification, so the standards become even more important to them. They have to understand the terminology before they can even get to the standards. They’re just not as familiar with and acclimated to the certification world as other (industries).”
As executive director of NOCA, Delk comes into contact with certification programs that vary greatly in size, scope and subject matter. The organization, which was established in 1977 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services), began as the National Commission for Health Certifying Agencies. By the mid-1980s, NOCA had evolved beyond the health care industry into an umbrella trade association for all credentialing organizations that certify individuals. Today, NOCA includes the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which has identified 21 inherent characteristics in first-rate certifications and accredits programs based on those standards.
“The NCCA standards are a blueprint—almost a business plan in some ways—for how to build a quality certification program,” Delk said. “Whether you intend to be accredited by the NCCA or not, if you follow the standards to the best of your ability, you’re going to create a very high-quality certification program.”
One of these attributes is that the certification is considered necessary in the first place. For example, a credential around how to play air guitar probably wouldn’t meet this criterion. “First, determine there is a need for the certification,” Delk said. “If you’re sitting around a table and saying, ‘You know, it might be fun to have a certification in this area,’ that’s not certainly not relevant and valid enough to start it.”
Another key trait of thriving certification programs is that they deliver important information to participants in a clear and accessible manner, he said. “Every organization needs to have something put down and explained to people. “In your policies and procedures, you have to have—whether you’re doing certifications for financial planners, nurse practitioners or crane operators—information in there that tells candidates when they take the test and, if they don’t pass, what rights they have to file a complaint, to appeal and to see what information you’re going to show them. It’s a responsibility to the stakeholders: those individuals that are taking the certification or looking to take the certification. It’s also for the organization that is giving the program, because it in essence backs them up, too.”
The NCCA standards are divided into five groups: purpose, governance and resources of the program; responsibility to stakeholders; assessment instruments (mathematical elements of measurements, psychometrics, etc.); recertification; and maintaining accreditation. Here is the comprehensive list, in order and sorted by category:
Purpose, Governance and Resources
- The purpose of the certification program is to conduct certification activities in a manner that upholds standards for competent practice in a profession, occupation, role or skill.
- The certification program must be structured and governed in ways that are appropriate for the profession, occupation, role or skill and that ensure autonomy in decision making over essential certification activities.
- The certification board or governing committee of the certification program must include individuals of the certified population, as well as voting representation from at least one consumer or public member. For entities offering more than one certification program, a system must be in place through which all certified populations are represented, with voting rights, on the certification board or governing committee.
- The certification program must have sufficient financial resources to conduct effective and thorough certification and recertification activities.
- The certification program must have sufficient staff, consultants and other human resources to conduct effective certification and recertification activities.
Responsibility to Stakeholders
- A certification program must establish, publish, apply and periodically review key certification policies and procedures concerning existing and prospective certificants such as those for determining eligibility criteria; applying for certification; administering assessment instruments; establishing performance domains, appeals, confidentiality, certification statistics and discipline; and complying with applicable laws.
- The certification program must publish a description of the assessment instruments used to make certification decisions as well as the research methods used to ensure that the assessment instruments are valid.
- The certification program must award certification only after the knowledge and/or skill of individual applicants has been evaluated and determined to be acceptable.
- The certification program must maintain a list of and provide verification of certified individuals.
- The certification program must analyze, define and publish performance domains and tasks related to the purpose of the credential, and the knowledge and/or skill associated with the performance domains and tasks, and use them to develop specifications for the assessment instruments.
- The certification program must employ assessment instruments that are derived from the job/practice analysis and that are consistent with generally accepted psychometric principles.
- The certification program must set the cut score consistent with the purpose of the credential and the established standard of competence for the profession, occupation, role or skill.
- The certification program must document the psychometric used to score, interpret and report assessment results.
- The certification program must ensure that reported scores are sufficiently reliable for the intended purposes of the assessment instruments.
- The certification program must demonstrate that different forms of an assessment instrument assess equivalent content and that candidates are not disadvantaged for taking a form of an assessment instrument that varies in difficulty from another form.
- The certification program must develop and adhere to appropriate, standardized and secure procedures for the development and administration of assessment instruments. The fact that such procedures are enforced should be published.
- The certification program must establish and document policies and procedures for retaining all information and data required to provide evidence of validity and reliability of the assessment instruments.
- The certification program must establish and apply policies and procedures for secure retenti