By Linda Anguish, SPHR, GPHR, ICE Director of Accreditation Services
Most credentialing professionals are familiar with the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs (the Standards). After all, they were the first standards developed to regulate voluntary certification programs back in the 1970s, originally in the healthcare field. Currently more than 300 certification programs have been awarded accreditation by the NCCA, across a wide range of industries and professions.
The benefits of an accredited certification program are many (see sidebar below) and becoming accredited benefits many stakeholders, including potential candidates and certificants, the general public who is the recipient of the certificants’ services, employers, adjunct professionals (who may refer to certificants for services), associated educational programs and more.
Benefits of Accreditation From a Reputable Accrediting Body
Yet not every certification program aspires or is at the right stage to be accredited. A program may be too new and not yet stable enough to successfully pursue accreditation. Or it may be a very small program with finite resources and a limited candidate pool. Or, perhaps the organization’s board of directors needs to learn more about the value of accreditation to make it a priority.
Whatever the reason, even programs that are not currently pursuing accreditation can benefit from using the NCCA Standards as a quality improvement tool. Here are some of the ways using the requirements of the Standards as a benchmark can benefit any certification program.
Purpose of Certification
Standard 1 requires that a certification program must articulate the purpose of the specific program and the designation that it awards. This information must be easy to find. The Standard specifies that it must be “publicly available,” which is defined as “easily accessible, with or without request.”1 This can be achieved by making the information readily available on the organization’s website or in a candidate handbook that can be accessed online.
This seems like a very basic requirement, but all too often the purpose of attaining a specific credential is not well-defined. The information provided to candidates consists largely of eligibility requirements that must be met, when it should focus on who should earn the certification and why they will benefit from it, as well as what it represents. This is particularly true when an organization offers more than one credential — it helps potential candidates make an appropriate choice. Having a clear purpose statement will not only help to target the right candidate population, it will support marketing efforts by influencing professionals to want to earn the credential. It is also a great way to introduce certificants to the world at large.
Rationales and Supporting Evidence
Multiple standards call for a program to provide a rationale for its requirements, policies and procedures, as well as evidence that relevant information is accessible to potential candidates and the public. A rationale is defined as “A statement of explanation for the fundamental basis, principles or reasons documenting why a policy, procedure or requirement has been established. Explanation may include how the policy, procedure or requirement was developed, what assumptions were made and why the conclusions are supported.”2
Having a sound rationale for requirements such as eligibility and recertification assures a program that it has made thoughtful and reasonable decisions that are appropriate for the purpose of the credential. It is not adequate to base a requirement on what a competitor or “everyone else” is doing. A sound rationale will also ensure that a program does not “unreasonably limit access to certification,” which is prohibited by Standard 7C.
The requirements, policies and procedures that directly impact candidates and certificants are also required to be “publicly available” (see definition above). These include eligibility and recertification requirements, as well as complete descriptions of the assessment(s) required to earn the credential, application processes, and policies around testing accommodations, appeals and retesting, among others. This transparency is one of the hallmarks of a quality program and gives candidates and certificants the opportunity to make fully informed decisions.
As an example, a program might not believe it is necessary to make its recertification requirements publicly available, thinking it is only relevant once an individual becomes certified. But the ability for a potential candidate to determine if they can fulfill those requirements on an ongoing basis, as well as knowledge of the financial commitment required, should be part of their decision making process. Employers and the public at large should be able to determine what a certified individual is doing in order to remain certified. Following the Standards will assure a program that it is providing essential information to its stakeholders.
A hallmark of a quality certification program is one that operates in the best interests of its stakeholders, free from undue or improper influence from competing interests. Therefore, it is essential to assure that the governing board of the certifying body has clear autonomy when it comes to making essential certification decisions.
As defined by the Standards, “Essential certification decisions refer to the core aspects of a certification program, such as eligibility standards; standards for initial certification and maintaining certification; disciplinary determinations; the development, administration and scoring of examinations; and the selection of subject-matter experts (SMEs).”3 Protecting the autonomy of the certification program requires that the governance structure and process for appointment and removal of certification board members is appropriate, defined and documented, and that board members do not have conflicts of interest that affect their overall ability to serve.
Additionally, key stakeholder groups should be included on the certification board, to ensure that their interests are represented. Since each program has a unique set of stakeholders, the Standards only specify two: certificants and public members. The reason for including certificant representation is obvious, but a public or consumer member’s role is to bring a perspective to the decision-making of the certification program that is broader than the certificants and to help balance the certification program’s role in protecting the public while advancing the interests of the certificants.
The Standards offer other considerations for assuring sound governance, such as rotating representation on the certification board, and other methods for obtaining stakeholder input.
Certification and Education Firewall
A quality certification program recognizes professionals who demonstrate established knowledge, skills or competencies required for a given role, regardless of how acquired. Therefore, a “teach to the test” approach is not effective or acceptable. The Standards do not prohibit an organization from offering both a certification program and related preparatory products. However, in order to protect the integrity of the certification program, the appropriate separation (known as a firewall) must exist between it and any education or training functions.
In addition to establishing a firewall and clearly documenting procedures and responsibilities of assigned staff, the Standards require the use of separate pools of subject matter experts (SMEs), with the appropriate confidentiality and conflict of interest agreements be in place. Additionally, the purchase of any available educational resources must be optional, and the organization may not state or imply that their products are the best or only means to prepare for or pass the certification examination. These steps demonstrate the program’s impartiality regarding how a candidate might choose to prepare for an assessment.
Subject Matter Experts
Standard 13 specifies that a certification program use panels of qualified subject-matter experts (SMEs) for all activities involved in the development of the assessment, including job analysis, standard setting and item development. It also requires that the qualifications of the SMEs be documented, that they clearly understand responsibilities entrusted to them and that their decisions and recommendations are recorded.
Programs that follow the Standards in this area will ensure that the SMEs that work on their programs represent the relevant characteristics of those they certify. They will also ensure that their efforts to recruit a broad range of SMEs prevent the undue influence of a limited group of individuals who may exert a disproportionate influence over the assessment over time.
With qualified SMEs participating in the ongoing development of the assessment, the program is better able to build a sound, defensible assessment that is positioned to withstand potential legal challenges.
Standard 22 defines recertification as “requirements and procedures established as part of a certification program that certificants must meet to maintain competence and renew their certification.” To support this, the certification must be “time limited with a specified beginning and end date.”4
As discussed earlier in this article, the Standards require a rationale for whatever requirements the program establishes to maintain certification. This would cover not only the frequency, but also the number and types of activities that must be undertaken in order to recertify. The resulting requirements should be based on the how the relevant knowledge and skills for the certificants and for the field changes over time.
Investing the time to learn about the requirements of the NCCA Standards can reap many rewards for a certification program. Of course, nothing can compare to celebrating the achievement of actually earning third-party accreditation from the Commission and proudly being able to display the NCCA “Accredited Program” seal. However, aligning program operations with the Standards means that gaining accreditation should be easier when the time is right. And for any certification program, the Standards can serve as a valuable tool for quality improvement.
Note: This article is based on a preconference session titled “Empowering Your Program
Through Accreditation” presented by NCCA Commissioners at the 2017 ICE Exchange.
Learn More About the NCCA Standards
- Download a copy of the NCCA Standards (complimentary for ICE members, available at a nominal charge for non-members.) Be sure to read the commentary for additional guidance.
- Read the following resources from ICE for more information on specific topics mentioned in this article:
- Consider attending the one-day Accreditation Overview Workshop (offered by ICE several times each year) where each Standard is reviewed in detail.
- Watch the Value of Accreditation video
1 NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, Glossary page 43
2 NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, Glossary page 44
3 NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, Standard 2, Commentary 1, page 9
4 NCCA Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, Standard 22.1