Certifications vs. Assessment-based Certificates – Understanding the Difference

Within the world of credentialing, organizations can offer a variety of designations. In this post, we discuss some of the key differences between certificates, assessment-based certificates, and certifications—and why programs would sponsor one or the other.

Assessment-based certificates are awarded only after a candidate has demonstrated a specified level of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) on an assessment. The KSAs that must be demonstrated to earn an assessment-based certificate are aligned with a companion training course or program of study. This is a significant difference from other types of certificates that do not require a demonstration of KSAs, such as certificates awarded for simply participating in a given class, conference, or training experience.

A certification typically implies a person has demonstrated the KSAs required to perform at a defined level of competency within a given profession, regardless of the person’s prior training or experience. In fact, there is an expectation that a firewall exist between educational and certification purposes to protect against conflicts of interest. Clearly the relationship between training and assessment is a major difference between assessment-based certificate and certification programs.

Another significant difference is the KSAs addressed. Certifications are expected to represent industry-wide accepted KSAs. This places significant requirements on a certification program and requires a number of key processes that help ensure the certification truly represents the essential KSAs required to perform within a given profession. Assessment-based certificates are expected to represent only the KSAs addressed in the companion training course or program of study. Assessments in both types of programs, however, are expected to have evidence to support reliability, fairness, and the interpretation(s) and use(s) of scores.

Why would an organization choose to sponsor one type of program over another? The importance of engaging in program design to guide that decision cannot be underemphasized. Stakeholders must consider, among many other things, the program’s purpose and goals, the target population, the abilities of the target candidate, the intended and unintended interpretations and uses of scores, eligibility criteria, and maintenance of the credential. In general, the more important a particular eligibility pathway (e.g., education, training, experience) is to the meaning of the credential, the more likely the program is designing an assessment-based certificate.

As an example, suppose an organization is developing a credential for preparing hamburgers for human consumption. After engaging in program design activities, the organization decided the credential should be relevant to any eating establishment serving hamburgers and therefore should address industry-wide KSAs necessary for safe preparation of hamburgers for human consumption. Furthermore, the organization does not intend to offer or partner with a companion training course or program of study. In this example, the program has characteristics more consistent with a certification program. If the organization had instead decided the credential should be relevant only to eating establishments serving hamburgers grilled in a specific way on a specific grill, and furthermore intends to offer or partner with a companion training course, the characteristics would be more consistent with an assessment-based certificate program.

To supplement this brief discussion, consider the guide produced by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). The document describes 12 key aspects of certification and certificate programs, and how these features can distinguish between the two.

Susan L. Davis-Becker, Ph.D. is a Senior Psychometrician with Alpine Testing Solutions. She is responsible for providing psychometric advice and consultation to a variety of educational and credentialing testing programs. Her specific areas of expertise include test content development, standard setting and validity research.

Andrew Wiley, Ph.D. is a Senior Psychometrician with Alpine Testing Solutions, with a focus is on the education services market. His responsibilities include business development, test development consultation, and psychometric analysis. Prior to joining Alpine, Andrew was an Executive Director for the Research & Development unit at The College Board. He’s an active member of the measurement community, and is currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Association of Test Publishers (ATP).