- Jan 06
Five Essential Questions For Your Next Certification Exam
1. Who’s Your Target Market, Really? – As you may be painfully aware, developing a certification exam is a lengthy, sequential and expensive process requiring hundreds of hours from a team of professionals. New certification sponsors may discover that the next phase―convincing prospects to sign up and pay for the exam―is every bit as demanding as the one that preceded it.
Given the resources necessary for bringing a new certification to market, your prospects and their needs must be identified before test development begins. This involves market research and surveys to reveal the core desires of your target market and the tangible/intangible benefits they expect to gain from certification.
Crafting the message of your certification should begin as soon as your research clarifies how your certification delivers the bundle of benefits prospects are seeking. If your certification has competition, your message should also include elements of differentiation: how your program is different from or better than the others.
2. Should Your Certification Be Profitable, Breakeven or Subsidized? – This can be an uncomfortable question because it asks about aspirations and answers with results. I once overheard a certification director say he would give anything for a breakeven program because that neutral financial position would be far less painful to justify to stakeholders than the underperforming program he was currently managing.
Lenora Knapp, Ph.D., notes in her book, The Business of Certification, that only 25 percent of new certifications are profitable in their first year. Another 50 percent will take 3-5 years to reach breakeven or possible profitability. The remaining 25 percent will be subsidized in perpetuity by their sponsors because their testing volume and revenue is below breakeven.
3. Are You Building Flexibility into Your Certification from the Beginning? – Opportunities may present themselves in the future, like accreditation or new outlets for your exam, which could generate needed revenue and extend the life of your certification, especially if it’s in a mature phase.
Accreditation, for example, may only present itself if stakeholders agree at inception to incorporate best practices into the test-development process to allow for the flexibility of future accreditation. Attempting to do that after the fact can be expensive, whether that’s money, time, human resources, lost momentum or lost opportunities.
4. So We're All in Agreement Then? – Test Definition is the first step in the test-development process. It invites all program stakeholders to come to agreement on all critical aspects of the credentialing program including the definition of the minimally qualified candidate (MQC).
Without a well-defined MQC, your exam will either measure the wrong types of knowledge and skills, be too difficult or easy given the purpose of the exam, result in passing or failing the wrong candidates or all the above. Step 2 of the test-development process, the Job Analysis, will identify the critical tasks, knowledge and skills required for competent performance of the job role or profession being credentialed. A poorly conducted Job Analysis risks legal defensibility because it can’t be demonstrated that the credential is actually job related.
5. Are You Following Professional Testing Standards? – To ensure that the certification program is high quality and earns credibility among stakeholders, it's critical to be aware of and follow professional testing standards throughout all phases of the initial exam development. Common mistakes in this area include programs that develop an exam without a job-task analysis or test blueprint. Others may follow actual professional standards for test-development but then set an arbitrary cut score. As mentioned above, bringing programs up to professional standards after they are operational is costly and inefficient.