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Sorting Through Credentialing Confusion: Understanding the Differences Between Certificate and Certification Programs

Published By Christine Niero, Ph.D.
This article originally appeared on the Professional Testing Blog.

It’s confusing enough that we live in a credentialing society where the use of acronyms proliferate. Adding to the confusion is the misuse of key credentialing terminology, in particular, when “certification” is used interchangeably with, and as the outcome of, “certificate” and training programs. If you are thinking about developing a credentialing program, understanding the differences between “certification” and “certificate” programs will help you determine the best type of program for your profession.

Certification Programs

Certification Programs

Certification programs are based on an assessment of competence of the candidate by a certification body and are intended to communicate information to the consumer and public about the knowledge and skills of the certified professional. Certification programs are by definition third-party assessments of the knowledge and skills required for competent performance in a job or occupation. Certification programs should also be separate from training and education programs.

At a minimum, certification programs contain the following elements:

  1. Independent certification body (CB) — ideally certifications are administered by neutral third-party certification bodies (CBs) who have no stake in the outcome of the certification. Their sole responsibility is to measure the knowledge and skills of the candidate and to award the certification to those who provide evidence they have the knowledge and skills to be competent in the job or occupation. The CB is responsible for implementing the policies that guide all certification decisions, and protection of the intellectual property entrusted to them.
  2. Eligibility criteria — the prerequisites required to qualify for certification, and/or the examination. Education and work experience, or a combination thereof, are commonly used as a benchmark to qualify candidates for an examination. Several certifications require background checks and completion of courses in ethics and/or other areas determined to be important to the certification and competent practice.
  3. Assessment — a certification exam is designed as a criterion-referenced test that measures an individual’s competence against a set standard, and is sponsored by the certification body. Certification exams can take many formats, including multiple-choice, essay, and performance. Certification exams are based on a job-task-analysis that defines the knowledge, skills and abilities required of individuals to perform at a the competency level required for certification, and may be targeted to measure entry-level skills, specialty skills, or advanced skills in a profession or industry.
  4. Recertification — the ongoing requirements to maintain the credential, typically continued professional development, continuing education (CE) and other experiences related to the competency requirement of the certification. As with eligibility, additional requirements may include background checks and completion of specified work or CE. One must meet recertification requirements in order to continue using the designation.
  5. Code of ethics — the canons or professional standards that certificate holders must agree to uphold and abide by. It is frequently an agreed upon statement of principles and expected behavior and conduct of the certificate holders. Commonly referred to as Standards of Practice or Codes of Professional Conduct, the canons are subject to enforcement and certificate holders found in violation of the code of ethics may be subject to disciplinary procedures. Codes of ethics are made a requirement for earning and maintaining certification.

Certificate Programs

A certificate is awarded after a person has completed a training or education program. It is similar to a diploma except that it is not offered after completion of a cadre of courses such as what one obtains in a community college or university. Certificate programs are generally courses focused on a single topic and not broad-based general education. Certificates are awarded after one has successfully completed the training program and may include an examination. However the difference between the examination offered by a certificate program, and one offered by a certification body (certification) is that the examination given during the certificate program is based on the course content and is designed to verify that the candidate learned the content during the course. Certificates are typically awarded for life, and have no maintenance requirements. Certificates say nothing about the continued competence of the person, or even the initial competence of the person, just that the person successfully completed the program and learned the content presented in the program.