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Summer 2022

Evolving Education: Myths About Professional Certifications
By Keith Olenik, MA, RHIA, CHP, and Mike Niederpruem, PhD, CAE
For The Record
Vol. 34 No. 3 P. 6

Certifications date back to the 1500s when tradesmen would discuss who within the town was qualified to provide certain goods and services; this limited competition while ensuring community members received what they needed. The actual certification was a “badge” in the form of a plaque that hung outside the shop and depicted what goods or services were being offered.

Over the past 500 years, certifications have evolved to become increasingly popular. Depending on the line of work, many employers see significant value in certifications. While their role varies by discipline and profession, certifications accelerate careers. Employers who look for certifications do so because they are a potent proxy for performance and a strong indicator of success. Certifications provide an immediate signal about qualified candidates—they validate a defined set of competencies.

Some employers may reimburse or cover the cost of a certification up front as an investment in the employee. As recruiting costs are constantly increasing with the rapid turnover phenomenon occurring across all industries, certifications are a way to invest in employees to help retain top talent while ensuring their skills remain relevant and productive to business.

Unfortunately, with this increased popularity in certifications, many mistruths surrounding obtaining them exist. The following are some myths and facts about certifications, including tips for succeeding.

MYTH: Certification Is the Same as Licensure
Certifications differ from licensure significantly. The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE) defines licensure as the mandatory process, created by statute, by which a governmental agency or an autonomous body grants time-limited permission to an individual to engage in a given occupation after verifying that the individual has met predetermined and standardized criteria; licensure offers title protection for those who meet the criteria.

Certifications, according to ICE, are a voluntary, nongovernmental process by which an individual is determined by a certification body to have successfully completed the requirements of a certification program and may be identified to the public and other stakeholders as a “certificant.” Some regulatory bodies use voluntary certification programs to meet licensure or registration requirements. Both licenses and certifications can be revoked if ethical and professional conduct has been violated. Similarly, licenses and certifications need to be renewed as part of continuous learning.

MYTH: All Credentials/Certifications Are the Same
Just like degree programs, not all credentials or certifications are the same. Certifications vary across industries and within each industry. Each of the certifications within this particular industry has its own set of knowledge, skills, abilities, and competencies, as well as specific eligibility requirements. These certifications are specific to the defined scope of work performed by each of the professionals within the industry.

MYTH: The Value of a Certification Decreases After Employment
Just like a degree program, the value of the certification doesn’t decrease if you’ve secured a job. Certifications can put you ahead of the competition when searching for a job and seeking a promotion. Employers often look for specialized skills, and training and certifications are strong indicators of good performance.

MYTH: There Are No Standards for Certification Organizations
Many organizations offer certificates, but not all are accredited. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) are two specific accreditors for certification bodies. After determining which certification you’d like to obtain, look for an organization that is accredited by a third-party accreditor such as NCCA or ANSI.

An accredited organization issuing certifications means those who have earned certifications through that entity have met national or international standards. It’s important to note that some employers look for or accept only certifications from accrediting bodies.

MYTH: Certifications Do Not Support Lifelong Learning
To earn a certification, a breadth and depth of content domains and tasks must be validated against a predefined competency standard. Certified professionals must accumulate a specific number and type of learning experiences (often referred to as continuing education credits or units) to maintain their certification over time.

MYTH: Certifications, Like Degrees, Cannot Be Revoked
While it’s true that degrees cannot be revoked, certifications can be revoked for a variety of reasons, including engaging in professional misconduct; failing to maintain ethical, professional, and moral standards; or not completing the continuing education requirements to demonstrate continued competence.

MYTH: The Certification Exam Is Based Exclusively on the Materials/Content Taught in Certification Prep Courses
Certification exams are based on conducting a job task analysis study that identifies the knowledge, skills, and tasks used to perform a specific job role. The results of a job task analysis study include a finalized content outline (blueprint) that specifies the concepts candidates will be tested on (domains and tasks).

Keep in mind, no two candidates have the same knowledge base, experience, or educational background. To adhere to accreditation standards, a certification body should neither require nor endorse any specific exam preparation activities/experiences, and a candidate’s participation in any education/training or exam preparation activities does not guarantee exam success. The best way to prepare is to review and study the concepts in the content outline.

MYTH: Individuals With Relevant Experience Need Not Prepare for the Exam
The one constant in the job market is change. In every profession, knowledge and practices evolve over time. Certification exams are based on updated knowledge and practices. Both new and experienced candidates benefit from using the official content outline as their exam preparation foundation.

MYTH: Doing Well on Practice Tests Ensures Exam Success
Practice tests (especially those from official sources) can provide a view into some of the content on the actual certification exam. Items on practice exams, which do not appear on the actual exam, are meant to reinforce specific knowledge and tasks that will be assessed as part of the actual certification exam.

While there may be value in taking practice tests, they are not necessarily an accurate indicator of how candidates will perform on the actual exam.

MYTH: Exams Are Developed by Professors With Advanced Degrees
Certification exams are developed by trained subject matter experts in item writing and exam design that have worked or are working in the field. They have an in-depth knowledge of the industry, how things are changing, and advancements that have been made. Certification exams should be based on a recent and robust job analysis study that identifies the knowledge, skills, tasks, and respective competencies of competent professionals.

MYTH: Exam Prep Vendors Guarantee Pass Rates
Unfortunately, no one can guarantee an exam pass rate. To improve their chances of passing a certification exam, candidates should ensure their readiness by understanding and mastering the performance domains and their respective competencies. If possible, manage your test anxiety by choosing a date, time, and location that aligns with your exam preparation strategy.

MYTH: Exams Are Graded on a Curve
Certification exams are not graded on a curve. Instead, they should be based on a criterion-referenced standard. Specifically, standard setting for a certification exam is an industry-accepted best practice that determines a minimum acceptable threshold for performance that a competent candidate must meet or exceed.

When preparing for a certification exam, it’s important to keep the following in mind:

• Don’t rush through the exam. One strategy is to determine in advance the maximum amount of time you want to spend on each item. Most certification exams inform candidates about the total number of items on the test and the total amount of time available. Allow yourself time to ensure you’re fully prepared.

• Don’t rely on third-party companies that promise success. These are often expensive options featuring outdated information that no longer applies to the exam. Instead, exhaust all official study materials and resources available from the entity administering the course and corresponding exam.

• If you fail your certification exam, try, try again. Groups offering the certification want candidates to be successful. Note that exam retake policies vary by organization. Remember to study and review all the content before retesting. Many candidates improve in the areas where they have previously failed and neglect to review the areas in which they’ve initially done well. In some cases, they end up performing worse on sections they’ve tested well on during previous attempts.

Certifications are a great way to advance your career path. They demonstrate that an individual is determined by a certification body to have successfully completed the requirements of a certification program. Many times, employers will provide reimbursement for certifications related to the role. Research the entity providing the certification to ensure it is respected throughout the industry.

— Keith Olenik, MA, RHIA, CHP, is chief member relations and service officer at AHIMA. Mike Niederpruem, PhD, CAE, is vice president of certifications at AHIMA.