There seems to be wide misconceptions about what “Certification” and “Licensure” are all about. Some see it as just the final part of an educational regimen. Other’s see it as some kind of hurdle imposed by greedy organizations restricting access to some benefit. These misconceptions and skewed perspectives, lead them to make demands affecting the very heart of what certification is all about and minimizing the value of the very certification they are working to achieve. First:
What Certification IS …
Certification is a legally defined classification stating a certifying body stands behind the capability of a certified individual to perform at some specific level of capability. Certification is a very simple construct: it is the definition of a standard of performance, and a program assessing individuals to that standard. That’s it, nothing more and nothing less.
Setting a standard is the first part of any certification. Ideally, this standard is defined with help of people who perform the job. In addition, a standard implies that everyone, no matter whether they have done the actual job for decades or participated in the development of the standard itself, must objectively demonstrate their capability in exactly the same manner. Unless this standard is objectively applied equally to all individuals, it is not a standard. Maintaining that standard is the foundation of certification value; it is what the certification stands for and how it should be used.
Creating an assessment of that standard is the second part of any certification. This not only includes a mechanism assessing current capability, but also a program or process to ensure future capability. Despite what many believe, creating an assessment is not a simple, ad hoc process where someone creates an assessment (test) and makes people take it to prove their ability. It is, in fact, a highly rigours process backed by decades of scientific research on measuring cognitive ability (psychometrics), the sole purpose of which is ensuring the validity of the decisions made based on assessment performance. It involves designing the assessment, job-task analysis of the job being assessed, formalized standards of item (question) writing, public beta-testing of items, psychometric evaluation of the item performance, assessment construction, and evaluation of appropriate scoring. Done properly, it is time-consuming and costly (which is why some organizations don’t do it properly).
Finally, because knowledge and competence are perishable commodities, mechanisms must be put in place ensuring certified individuals remain capable in the future. This is frequently done by limiting the length of time a certification is valid and requiring periodic re-certification (re-validation) of the individuals capability. Other methods may include proving continued education and practice of the knowledge. Regardless, the ongoing evaluation of certified individuals must adhere to the original standard with the same validity, or the standard no longer has value.
There is no hidden agenda to certification. There is no conspiracy. It is simply to establish a standard and assess individuals compared to that standard.
Misconceptions about Certification
Really, any belief beyond the design of a standard and the assessment to that standard, is a misconception about certification. However, there are a number of misconceptions that often drive changes detrimental to the rationale of certification. The most common ones relate to understanding what an assessment is for, training, and re-certification requirements.
Most people mistakenly assume the items within an assessment must represent the end-all-be-all of what someone should know. They don’t understand that a psychometric assessment is not about the answers themselves, but the inferences we can make about performance based on those answers. There is no way to develop an exhaustive exam of all the knowledge necessary to be competent and to deliver that exam efficiently. However, we can survey a person’s knowledge and through statistical analysis infer whether they have all the knowledge necessary or not. The answer to any specific question is less important than how answering that question correlates with competence. Even a poorly written, incomplete, and inaccurate item can give us information about real world performance; in fact, evaluating how a candidate responds to such an item can be highly informative (although this is not a standard, intentional practice). This focus on the items themselves, rather than the knowledge and competence the answers suggest, is what makes people incorrectly question the validity of the certification.
Similarly, many people think a certification should be able to be specifically taught. As such, they believe a training course should be all that is necessary to achieve a certification. However, this does not align with what we know about the development of human competence. There is a big difference between knowing something, and knowing how to apply that knowledge competently. Certification is an assessment of performance, not knowledge; and, as such, cannot be taught directly. If someone can take a class and immediately achieve certification, either: A) the assessment does not evaluate actual performance; or, B) the course simply teaches the answers to the questions on the exam, rather than the full domain of knowledge. In either case, you have biased the inferences made by the assessment. Competence begins with knowledge, but must also have experience and practice. This cannot be gained through a class, but only through concerted effort; you cannot buy competence.
Finally, many people also believe that once a certification has been achieved, it shouldn’t need to ever be evaluated again; or, that taking a course instead of an assessment should suffice. The former belief simply ignores the fact performance capability is a perishable commodity: if you don’t use it, you lose it. The latter once again confuses knowledge with performance. How frequently this needs to happen, or whether continued education is sufficient to demonstrate continued performance is entirely dependent on the knowledge domain the certification attempts to assess. In highly dynamic environments, this may need to be done much more frequently and rely more on assessments than in other domains; however, ongoing evidence of continued capability is a must if standards are to be maintained.
Leave Certification to the Professionals
The heart of the problem is that everyone seems to believe they are experts in the design of certification programs and assessments simply because they have participated in them. The reality is that certification is a rigorous, research-based, and scientific endeavor. The minimum requirement to be considered a psychometrician is a PhD; that’s a great deal of specialized knowledge most people do not have. The decisions made are not arbitrary, nor are they made with the intention of anything other than maintaining the standard and making valid assessments of individuals according to that standard.
At the end of the day, the value of a certification is whether the people who achieve it can perform according to the standard the certification set forth. If the certification cannot guarantee that, then it is not valid and has no value. However, this requires people to actually understand what that standard is, what it means, and why it was created. It requires people to accept there is a rigorous process accounting for all of the decisions and those decisions all support validity. Finally, it requires people to understand that just because they may be experts in their field, they are not experts in certification.