Certificates and Certifications: Credential Clarification Is Critical!

Stimulated by the current economy, adults are returning to training and education to enhance their labor market success. Government workforce economic development agencies as well as private and community organizations advocate certifications and certificates. Credential is the generic term for such designations. Together with educational degrees, state licenses, and registration systems, certificates and certifications signal competence in the individual (Schoon & Smith, 2000) and fit into a movement toward lifelong learning through “stackable credentials” for individuals. Accreditation, which occurs at a program rather than an individual level, can also be considered a credential; it shows the interest of providers in quality assurance for delivery of learning and evaluation. Certifications formed a “parallel postsecondary universe” in Adelman’s (2000) summary of Information- Communications Technology (ICT) credentials. Although ICT certifications differ from many others because almost all are vendor specific rather than vendor neutral, Adelman conclud- ed that the number of certifications in ICT enhanced access for individuals who might not have attended postsecondary institutions. Access is enhanced by allowing individuals to demonstrate competence. Thus, one policy argument is that credentials in general benefit stakeholders, for example by sustaining learner persistence. Persistence is sustained by decreasing the distance between rungs on a career ladder or between sections of a career lattice. Or, credentials may enhance access to opportunities or substitute for education credentials.

Stakeholders in credentialing range from individuals seeking jobs and labor market success to bodies awarding the credential, to business firms, governments, and the public. Interpretation of the Perkins IV (2006) legislation funding career- technical education, for example, stakes out a federal position on “state- or industry-recognized certifications” to document secondary and postsecondary technical skill attainment. Ohio developed a precollege Stackable Certificate system with three levels—Basic, Advanced, and College-Work Ready Skills Certificates. Basic and Advanced Skills Certificates are currently awarded. Probably the best known program is I-BEST, or Integrated-Basic Education and Skills Training. In Washington state, researchers from the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges reported a “tipping point” for labor market success. The tipping point is reached with one year of credit- bearing course work plus an industry-recognized credential. The Washington state program, I-BEST, integrates basic edu- cation and skills training by co-teaching, which has specific costs flowing from the two-teacher model. Credentials earned through I-BEST range from a Commercial Drivers License to a Child Development Associate.

This article presents materials within the context of standards developers approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI is the U.S. member of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Standards development and conformity assessment are key components of the mission stated by ANSI. The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), formerly the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA), is an organization for groups involved in voluntary certifications. ICE is a U.S. standards developer that serves as a professional forum for certification agen- cies and certification vendors (testing firms, database and support firms, etc.). Among the products of ICE are a hand book on developing and maintaining certification programs (Knapp, Anderson, & Wild, 2009), an accreditation program for certifications based on 21 quality standards (National Commission on Certifying Agencies [NCCA], 2004), a side- by-side comparison of certificates and certifications, and a U.S. standard for test-based certificates, ICE 1100: Quality Standard for Assessment-Based Certificate Programs (ICE, 2009). A second ANSI-approved standards developer is the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation at the Evaluation Center of Western Michigan University (www. wmich.edu/evalctr/jc/). This organization offers the Personnel Evaluation Standards (Joint Committee on Standards for Edu- cation Evaluation [JCSEE], 1994) for providers in education and training (teachers, instructors, professors) and the Student Evaluation Standards (JCSEE, 1988) for learners. A third ANSI-approved standards developer is the ASTM (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials), which released E2659-09, Standard Practice for Certificate Programs (ASTM, 2009) and received ANSI endorsement as the national standard. The broad components of the ASTM E2659-09 standard include requirements for certificate issuers (body providing the certificate) and requirements for certificate programs (content presented to learners). Requirements for certificate programs are divided into two categories: (1) Certificate Program Plan and (2) Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation (ADDIE).

Having distinguished certificates and certifications, what is the status of certificates within Ohio? A broad range exists, spanning short-term, narrow-tailored certificates to two-year associate degrees, four-year bachelor degrees, and postgraduate degrees. Educational institutions are major providers of certificate programs, although government agencies, com- munity organizations, and business firms offer them as well. Dennis Budkowski of Marion Technical College has cross- walked subjects to career fields for the Ohio Board of Regents. On behalf of the Ohio Association of Chief Academic Officers (CAO), Dennis also coordinated a master listing of certifica- tions and their links to certificate programs across Ohio public institutions, now known collectively as the University System of Ohio (USO; http://uso.edu/). This listing divides certificates by their intensity (time-span) from short-term to associate degree level. The certificate/certification categories range from shortterm programs through technical, “one + one,” credit toward degree, examination, and skill development.

Considering the range of certificates offered within Ohio postsecondary institutions is instructive. The institutions are broadly defined to include adult workforce education and training centers as well as traditional postsecondary educational institutions. For example, multiple certificates have been offered in Manufacturing by the Rhodes State College; they range from a 40-hour Basic Certificate that covers broad introductory content to an Intermediate Certificate to an Advanced Certificate that earns an Associate Degree. For this certificate, an end-point certification might be the Certified Production Technician (CPT) offered by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (www.msscusa.org), which requires that the candidate pass four tests (passing one of the tests earns a “certificate,” which is another case of imprecise language). Another short-term certificate is Pre-Employment Training (PET) as offered by C-TEC of Licking County in a series of courses. A medium-term example is the Stark State College of Technology certificate in Fuel Cells offered through Engineering Technology. This one-year certificate can count toward an AA degree or course transfer. Although there is no certification at present for Fuel Cell specialties, the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technology offers other certifications in the broad occupation that may serve as exemplars of appropriate national certifications linked to Ohio certificate programs. Consider an example from ICT certificates offered at multiple levels by multiple providers. Specifically, a Cisco Academy networking series of courses offered at the secondary (HS) level may fit a program of study that counts toward high school graduation, also meets Perkins IV requirements, and finally aligns to a national certification (CCNA, Cisco Certified Network Associate, for instance). Behrens, Collison, and DeMark (2005) discuss Cisco Academy assessment models within a framework of “Seven Cs” that acknowledges the experience gained in delivering 40,000,000 assessments through the NETPASS system. Likewise, the same set of skill standards can be offered by institutions that provide adult career technical education for individuals with HS or GED (General Educational Development) credentials or by community and technical colleges. Clearly, it is in the best interest of Cisco to accredit the programs through indicators of quality (instructors should be certified, etc.) that offer its skill standards due to the effects on Cisco reputation of poor-performing providers.

Certifications are numerous. Two dominant occupational domains within the certification sector are ICT and health care, with vendors dominating the former and voluntary as- sociations the latter. It is also possible to organize certifica- tions along two related dimensions: (1) specificity of content (from broad workforce readiness through intermediate levels to narrower technical domains) and (2) career progressions (entry, continuing, advanced). By way of illustration, two broad workforce readiness certifications for entry-level workers are the ACT National Career Readiness Certification (WorkKeys- based) and the National Work Readiness Credential (based on Equipped for the Future content standards and developed under the sponsorship of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). Certifications for the National Restaurant Association Edu- cation Foundation Serv-Safe (food, alcohol) or the National Retail Federation Customer Service might be considered broad and entry level. Intermediate certifications include the International Computer Driving License (ICDL) or the Internet and Computing Core Certificate (IC3), which address digital literacy; the Certified Production Technician offered by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council; and the Child Development Associate certification for child care workers. Narrower certifications include Computer Security certifications such as those offered by Cisco and Microsoft or health care specialties such as Medical Technologists or Medical Laboratory Technicians. The table summarizes selected credentials (examples) according to type of granting body and credentialing “model.”

What conclusions can be drawn about stackable certificates? They certainly fit into a market space that relies on demonstrations of competence by individuals and by providers (accreditation). One conclusion is that stackable certificates create a workforce development system with multiple routes, access points, and providers. In stackable certificate initia- tives, for instance, multiple types of providers move learners through inputs, processes, and outputs. Two of them are fixed. Inputs are prescribed variously as competencies, as a body of practice (knowledge-skill-judgment), or as content/ skill standards. Outputs are evaluated through learners who take tests or assessments (broadly defined). But what varies is who transfers and how they transfer the inputs to learners. Specifically, the teaching-instructional cycle is left to multiple providers with the output verified by the assessment. Thus, a distance-blended approach could be used, or an inquiry- based approach offered face-to-face. The results, in an experimenting society (Campbell, 1969, 1991), would be evaluated and used in system or program improvement efforts. Also, when considering a systems perspective on certificates and certifications it is important to ensure alignment as in the case of the University System of Ohio. This state-supported system is designed to serve adults from very basic levels of seeking the GED (adult basic education and English for Speakers of Other Languages) through training at adult career centers (formerly adult workforce education), two-year colleges, and four-year institutions with undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees.

A second conclusion flows from the beguiling term “industry- recognized” from the Perkins IV legislation, which covers a multitude of issues. Which industry sector(s) recognize the credential? As well, do individuals and firms understand the value of credentials? Clearly, there can be awareness and marketing issues for certificates and certifications in contrast to traditional and long-standing credentials (diplomas, licenses). For example, smaller or medium sized enterprises might have lesser awareness of certifications. Recall that Adelman (2000) defined three interacting platforms: (1) establishing certification of competence, (2) providing opportunity-to-learn and testing, and (3) awarding certifications. All platforms and actors should be carefully analyzed when establishing a system that deploys certificates or certifications. The logic of analyzing the platforms is the insight provided into awareness and marketing efforts—perhaps a logic model of certifications could be constructed.

Third, legal minefields are associated with the use of certifications in hiring if careful procedures are not followed to justify the certification in the hiring organization. The issue is that a certification is designed to evaluate a content domain or body of knowledge across firms and settings, while an organization is a specific firm and setting. Therefore, it is crucial that organizations considering using credentials in hiring should make sure that they conduct their due diligence, most often through local job analysis and linkage.

System Building

In Ohio the postsecondary providers of credentials consist of a system of two-year and four-year institutions plus adult work- force education and training centers. Examples include C-TEC of Licking County, Miami Valley Career-Technology Center, and Butler Technology and Career Schools. Continuing the focus on adults, there is a shared funding (federal-state) adult basic education component as well that supports learners in achieving the GED (which will be updated and revised over the next five years). Clearly, other states provide different configurations of public providers but there is a movement toward consolidation (Minnesota, for example). In addition, proprietary schools add a competitive component to the credential market. As a final message, contemplate the powerful system that could be created if the following conditions were implemented as policy.

A final theme is the importance of evaluation of certificates and certifications. Mahlman and Austin (2003) proposed that credentials could be judged for their merit against standards. The accreditation of certification programs against ICE-NCCA or ANSI is another example. Certificates too can be evaluated against standards, and recent systems include ICE 1100 or ASTM E2695-09. The Southern Regional Education Board released a 2009 report in which certifications were evaluated against criteria in three sets: Essential (nine standards), Necessary (two standards), and Desirable (four standards). Moving beyond description to evaluation of credentials will become increasingly prominent.

A final point is that there are few integrated packages of third-party certifications that are also accredited. CETE staff members believe that it is an indicator of professionalism and quality assurance for a certificate or certification provider to seek accreditation. Recall that accreditation for certificate providers is offered by ICE and by ASTM, while accreditation for certification providers is offered by NCCA and by ISO/ANSI. Systems seeking to use certificates and certifications should ask whether the credentials are offered by a reputable and accredited body, but should also ensure that they receive an answer before they expend public dollars. Recent legislation proposed by Senator Feingold (Skill Standards Certification Evaluation Act of 2009) would create a system of evaluating and ranking certifications repeated every two to three years. Accreditation and legislation may be two ways to ensure the quality of certifications and ensure that access and quality goals are achieved.

Contributor: James T. Austin