Certification: Your Return On Training Investments
The Advanced Centers for Technology and Training (ACTT) has discovered an important way to prove the value of its technology training courses: guaranteed success on The Computing Technology Industry Association's (CompTIA) A+ certification.
ACTT is not alone in using such important industry-recognized certifications to validate the success of computer training and provide trainees with valued credentials that expose them to valuable employment and educational opportunities. Businesses, schools and training centers worldwide have organized their training curricula so that it can be tied to recognized certifications. This allows training to be based on established global standards that prepare trainees for jobs, college credit and other benefits. In doing so, these organizations are careful not to spend money on training programs that do not provide the same industry-recognized, portable credentials that international certifications offer.
What is a certification? There has been a great deal of confusion in the testing marketplace about what constitutes a certification, and how certifications differ from other types of testing and assessment products. Many assessments are available for IT or desktop application knowledge and skills, including pre- and post-assessments that are available in many computer-based training and e-learning products, as well as pre-employment tests.
In addition, many schools have developed similar testing vehicles to assess students' computing knowledge and performance. While many of these testing and assessment products are useful in providing high-quality evaluation and screening, none of them meet the strict standards required for recognition as a certification, nor do they provide the additional benefits of a certification to the individual.
What are those strict standards? To begin with, certification implies a level of difficulty in the test-development process not always associated with simple, commercially available assessments. The validation process for a certification normally includes:
- Significant research to define a skill set, knowledge area or job definition that can be tested as part of a certification. In this respect, certification is equivalent to professional licensure in which subject-matter experts, psychometricians and other test-development experts work together to research what knowledge, skills and abilities define a particular skill set or job to be covered by a certification exam.
- Rigorous exam-development procedures in which test items are exposed to large numbers of test-takers to determine how well the items are performing and how well a test accurately reflects the measured skill set.
- A commitment to continually update skill standards, and certification exams based on those standards, to ensure that exams continue to cover relevant aspects of a job or knowledge area.
In addition, certification exams tend to be supported by a recognized manufacturer or some broad-based independent authority. Companies such as Sun Microsystems and Microsoft have certification exams for their own products, whereas CompTIA is an example of an independent authority whose A+, I+, Network+ and other certifications are globally recognized standards supported by the entire IT industry.
Certiport's Internet and Computing Core Certification (IC3) program, a certification covering broad-based computer and Internet literacy, is an example of a certification that has gained wide acceptance through support of a number of credentialing authorities. IC3 is supported by CompTIA as the gateway to additional computer certifications, with certifications on desktop applications or higher-level technical skills, such as A+, being the next logical step for IC3 graduates.
IC3 has also been approved by the National Skills Standards Board to establish a recognized baseline for computer and Internet literacy. Academic support for IC3 has come through a credit recommendation from the American Council on Education (ACE), which allows IC3 certificate holders to obtain college credit from hundreds of two- and four-year colleges that base college credit decisions on ACE credit recommendations.
Beware of 'Pigeons'
While testing specialists recognize the difference between a true certification and other forms of assessment tools, a number of products exist that present themselves as "certifications," but don't have the strict developmental process or institutional backing that underpin more established certifications such as A+, Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), Microsoft Office Specialist and IC3.
When trying to determine whether a testing solution represents a true certification or if it is a "pigeon" certification - an assessment masquerading as a certification exam - customers should ask the following questions:
What is the validation behind the certification? D'es the certification meet industry standards for test development, rigor and relevance? What supporting documentation, including research methodology and statistical evidence, can a test provider supply to support their contention that a particular test represents a true certification?
Who supports the certification? Is it just the test vendor? If so, you may be talking about an assessment rather than a true certification. While assessments have their role to play in the training and employment process, they are not an equivalent substitute for a true certification in terms of rigor or acceptance as a true standard.
Is the test truly standardized? A+, MCP, Microsoft Office Specialist and IC3 certifications all provide the same standardized exams, localized for specific markets, worldwide. This level of standardization is another key differentiator between a true certification and a "pigeon" certification.
Is the test widely available? Is the test delivered in a large enough network of standardized test centers to ensure that the certification can be taken easily and conveniently? Vendors such as Microsoft and CompTIA make use of the established professional testing networks provided by companies such as The Thompson Corp.'s Prometric and NCS Pearson's VUE to deliver testing, while Certiport delivers both Microsoft Office Specialist and IC3 certifications through a global network of thousands of testing centers.
Is the test delivered in a professional, proctored environment? Prometric, VUE and Certiport all guarantee that testing is taken under the supervision of proctors to ensure candidates do not cheat or misrepresent their identity. The same cannot be said for certifications delivered via the Internet or through some other unsecured environment.
Setting a Standard
Certification programs that have made the effort to create a robust standard and build exams based on that standard provide an important service to the training market. The growth of standards, such as A+ and MCP, has provided training organizations with a wealth of training materials upon which to build successful programs. Whether providing skill standards to corporate clients, or opening educational and employment opportunities to students, organizations offering a certification as a final exam for training provide their customers an immediate ROI.
Jon Haber, President
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.