Published: November 18, 2016
Certification programs seek NCCA accreditation for reasons as diverse as the programs themselves. While the benefits of accreditation are widely acknowledged, the value of leveraging accreditation maintenance as an ongoing quality improvement tool is not as commonly recognized.
Just as certificants are expected to engage in professional development activities, an ongoing commitment to quality at the organizational level is also essential. Maintaining certification program accreditation contributes to ongoing quality improvement in much the same way that professional development can contribute to an individual’s continued competence. Positioning re-accreditation in a quality assurance framework creates a cultural shift in which an organization’s staff, certificants and volunteer leaders see the benefit and value of accreditation. Organizations that fail to make this shift, choosing instead to view re-accreditation as a necessary but unpleasant chore, tend to react as many of us to do when faced with a similar experience — they delay, procrastinate and route resources elsewhere, leading to visible gaps in the re-accreditation application.
At a bare minimum, successful accreditation compliance involves good governance, consistent policy implementation, ongoing examination development activities and meaningful program evaluation.
Planning for Re-accreditation
Planning for re-accreditation begins when the program decides to purse initial accreditation. In the same way the choice to have a baby is a long-term commitment, so, too, is the pledge to maintain a program that continues to meet accreditation standards.
The NCCA Commission expects accredited certification programs to continually evaluate and improve the major elements of the programs they offer. In addition to being a requirement of Standard 23 of the NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, developing a strong quality assurance process operationalizes the commitment to ongoing improvement and compliance with the accreditation standards.
A helpful first step is to create a compliance calendar, with assigned staff or volunteers, to map out the time frame for activities related to exam development, quality improvement and re-accreditation. The program should also clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the individuals (staff, volunteer leaders, committee members, consultants, vendors) assigned to key activities. While all staff and certification board members should understand the accreditation process and have access to relevant information, having a key staff person designated to manage the process helps ensure that tasks remain on schedule and that program changes do not negatively impact accreditation compliance.
Key Challenges of Re-accreditation
Even established organizations with long-standing accredited certification programs face challenges in the re-accreditation process. A carefully planned approach rooted in the foundation of overall quality improvement shifts the organization into a proactive mode, eases the workload and improves the chances of success.
Some challenges commonly faced during the re-accreditation process are discussed below. With an organized approach to quality improvement in place, many of these challenges can be mitigated.
1. Structure and Governance
Preserving the autonomy and independence of the certification governing body to make essential certification decisions is key to maintaining accreditation. For accredited programs, this includes consistently implementing confidentiality and conflict of interest policies and following established processes for selecting certification board members. Performing a periodic governance check-up as a component of the quality assurance program ensures that over time operational practices or changes in policy have not strayed from the standards. It also offers the opportunity to improve orientation and training for leaders and assess the adequacy of succession plans.
2. Policy Development
Certification program policies are dynamic, constantly evolving documents requiring periodic review, evaluation, updates and implementation. Establishing and updating policies is only the first step. The program must also ensure they are consistently implemented. An organized approach to the periodic review of the policies and procedures confirms they meet the needs of the program and the accreditation requirements and also verifies that written policies and day-to-day implementation match.
Ongoing training, as part of the staff team’s professional development, contributes not only to an understanding of the policies and underlying accreditation requirements, but also improves policy implementation. Staff and certification board members who engage in certification-related professional development activities outside of the organization will bring best practices, lessons learned and innovative approaches back to the policy review process.
3. Separating Education and Certification
Accredited certification programs housed within, or closely affiliated with, a membership association or other parent organization work diligently to separate education and certification functions before applying for initial accreditation. Over time, as staff and board members change, new practices may blur the line separating these functions and may pose a conflict of interest. Succession planning, a strong board orientation process and ongoing staff training play crucial roles in addressing this common challenge. Additionally, well developed and clearly written policies ensure that individuals involved in education, certification and marketing understand their roles, responsibilities and boundaries.
Volunteers with the potential to be involved in both examination development and examination preparation activities should be informed regarding the need to separate these roles and reminded of the confidentiality and conflict of interest agreements that they have signed — another “task” the program can add to a compliance calendar.
4. Published Information
Information published for stakeholders, including candidates and certificants, can change over time as the organization updates the website, revises the candidate handbook and develops new marketing materials. A well-meaning marketing team member may delete certification statistics or an explanation of the exam development process that is necessary for accreditation compliance in an effort to streamline content. The need to make appropriate information publicly available in a format that is easy to locate and access presents an opportunity for cross-training across the organization to ensure that all staff understand what information must be included in public-facing materials for maintenance of certification program accreditation.
Preserving the autonomy and independence of the certification governing body to make essential certification decisions is key to maintaining accreditation.
As organizations grow, opportunities for new credentials, reciprocal agreements and mergers may arise. Accreditation is an important factor to consider early in any process that may allow individuals to gain certification without passing the program’s assessment. Changes in certification status, including options for honorary, emeritus or retirement status, may also adversely impact accreditation if not planned for appropriately.
As indicated by the recent NCCA Standards revision and ICE research related to recertification, there is a growing need for certificants to demonstrate knowledge, skills and ability throughout their careers in ways beyond just taking a few self-selected continuing education courses. Certification programs are increasingly examining their requirements to align them with specific continuing competence goals and to better articulate the rationale for their requirements.
Accredited certification programs should review NCCA Standard 22 and plan actions to address any compliance gaps well in advance of preparing their re-accreditation applications.
7. Exam Development
Many certification programs leverage the expertise of psychometric consultants and outsource some or all exam development activities to vendors. This model works best when the program is an informed consumer of consulting services — understanding the program’s needs and contracting for all necessary activities.
While schedules differ based on the program’s size and scope, exam development is always an ongoing, continuous process. Creating a compliance calendar as a component of an accreditation-informed quality assurance program helps ensure that exam development activities are planned and scheduled well in advance. This aids in documenting the scope of work, developing contracts and monitoring vendor performance.
Documentation is essential for accreditation compliance. Programs must document all aspects of decision making, including exam development activities, and ensure that staff and volunteers have appropriate access to current versions of policies and reports. Access is essential; information should be readily available to those who are authorized to use it. Especially for smaller programs, this includes keeping records in a secure, centralized location (easily accomplished by leveraging affordable technology solutions). This supports the need for a well-developed document management system (including permissions-based access) as a component of the program’s quality assurance process.
The revised NCCA Standards require substantial documentation of all examination development activities. This documentation can be factored into consultant and vendor contracts as well as quality assurance activities to ensure that all information is in place prior to preparing a re-accreditation application.
Documenting the rationales for each policy aids with accreditation compliance, reinforces the importance of supporting policy decisions with well-articulated reasoning and assists in staff training and volunteer orientation.
Documentation should also capture evidence of policy implementation. This includes operational procedures, meeting minutes, signed confidentiality and conflict of interest forms, SME qualifications and examination development reports.
9. Working with Vendors
Vendors and consultants can be an invaluable resource for certification programs of any size. When monitoring vendor performance is included in quality assurance activities, the certification program will be able to demonstrate accreditation compliance regarding vendor oversight and benefit from setting clear expectations, defining the scope of work and establishing reporting procedures.
While certification programs benefit from the knowledge and expertise of vendors, they remain responsible for tracking accreditation-related deadlines, obtaining necessary documentation and providing appropriate monitoring.
5 Myths About Re-accreditation
Applying for re-accreditation won’t take long using our last application as a template.
While some governance and structure information may be reused in a re-accreditation application, most organizations find that nearly all of the remaining information has changed during a five-year period as policies have evolved, candidate materials have been updated, new job analysis and exam development activities have been conducted, and websites have been improved. If your program is able to use most of the same information after five years, this is likely an indication that you have not been reviewing, evaluating and updating policies effectively.
Our program has stayed the same, so we still meet all of the standards.
Even if your program has stayed the same, the NCCA Standards have not. The standards were updated effective in 2016, and most programs will require changes to policies and documentation to meet the revised standards. Additionally, ongoing program evaluation and improvement, policy review and continued exam development activities are all necessary for accreditation maintenance.
We contracted with a reputable vendor, so all of our test development needs are met.
Qualified consultants and vendors are essential resources for most certification programs. However, these professionals perform the services for which they have been contracted. It is the responsibility of the certification program to be informed consumers of these services — understanding what they need, acting on recommendations and maintaining proper documentation.
We know we are in compliance because all of our annual reports have been accepted by the NCCA.
The NCCA annual reporting process is designed to identify significant compliance issues. However, the annual report process does not require all of the detailed information that will be submitted with a re-accreditation application. You should prepare your staff and ensure they understand that the scope of work for a re-accreditation application is the same as for the initial application.
Our re-accreditation application isn’t due for years. I’ll worry about that later.
Everything that is happening now in your certification program will impact your re-accreditation application. Decisions made to delay a job analysis study, modify the composition of an item writing panel or change eligibility requirements will all impact an eventual application and should be adequately documented. Just as essential are any activities that are not happening. Lack of adequate examination development during the five-year accreditation cycle cannot be made up for in the months prior to a re-accreditation deadline.