certification licensure exam laptop

Certification vs Licensure exams are two terms that are used quite frequently to refer to examinations that someone has to pass to demonstrate skills in a certain profession or topic.  They are quite similar, and often confused.  This is exacerbated by even more similar terms in the field, such as accreditation, credentialing, certificate, and microcredentials.  This post will help you understand the differences.

What is Certification?

Certification is “a credential that you earn to show that you have specific skills or knowledge. They are usually tied to an occupation, technology, or industry.” (CareerOneStop)  The important aspect in this definition is the latter portion; the organization that runs the certification is generally across an industry or a profession, regardless of political boundaries.  It is almost always some sort of professional association or industry board, like the American Association of Widgetmakers (obviously not a real thing).  However, it is sometimes governed by a specific company or other organization regarding their products; perhaps the most well known is how Amazon Web Services will certify you in skills to hand their offerings.  Many other technology and software companies do the same.

What is Licensure?

Licensure is a “formal permission to do something: esp., authorization by law to do some specified thing (license to marry, practice medicine, hunt, etc.)” (Schmitt, 1995).  The key phrase here is by law.  The sponsoring organization is a governmental entity, and that is defines what licensure is.  In fact, licensure is not even always about a profession; almost all of us have a Driver’s License for which we passed a simple exam.  Moreover, it does not always even have to be about a profession; many millions of people have a Fishing License, which is granted by the government (by States in the USA), for which you simply pay a small fee.  The license is still an attestation, but not of your skills, just that you have been authorized to do something.  Of course, in the context of assessment, it means that you have passed some sort of exam which is mandated by law, typically for professions that are dangerous enough or impact a wide range of people that the government has stepped in to provide oversight: attorneys, physicians, medical professionals, etc.

Certification vs Licensure Exams

woman-taking-testUsually, there is a test that you must pass, but the sponsor can differ with certification vs licensure.  The development and delivery of such tests is extremely similar, leading to the confusion.  They often will both utilize job analysis, Angoff studies, and the like.  The difference between the two is outside the test itself, and instead refers to the sponsoring organization: is it mandated/governed by a governmental entity, or is it unrelated to political/governmental boundaries?  You are awarded a credential after successful completion, but the difference is in the group that awards the credential, what it means, and where it is recognized.

However, there are many licensures that do not involve an exam, but you simply need to file some paperwork with the government.  An example of this is a marriage license.  You certainly don’t have to take a test to qualify!

Can they be the same exam?

To make things even more confusing… yes.  And it does not even have to be consistent.  In the US, some professions have a wide certification, which is also required in some States as licensure, but not in all States!  Some States might have their own exams, or not even require an exam.  This muddles the difference between certification vs licensure. 

Differences between Certification and Licensure

Aspect Certification Licensure
Mandatory? No Yes
Run by Association, Board, Nonprofit, Private Company Government
Does it use an exam? Yes, especially if it is accredited Sometimes, but often not (consider a marriage license)
Accreditation involved? Yes, NCCA and ANSI provide accreditation that a certification is high quality No; often there is no check on quality
Examples Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician (CCSP®), Certified in Clean Needle Technique (CNT) Marriage license; Driver’s License; Fishing License; License to practice law (Bar Exam)

How do these terms relate to other, similar terms?

This outline summarizes some of the relevant terms regarding certification vs licensure and other credentials.  This is certainly more than can be covered in a single blog post!

  • Attestation of some level of quality for a person or organization = CREDENTIALING
    • Attestation of a person
      • By government = LICENSURE
      • By independent board or company
        • High stakes, wide profession = CERTIFICATION
        • Medium stakes = CERTIFICATE
        • Low stakes, quite specific skill = MICROCREDENTIAL
      • By an educational institution = DEGREE OR DIPLOMA
    • Attestation of an organization = ACCREDITATION

The Bookmark Method of standard setting (Lewis, Mitzel, & Green, 1996) is a scientifically-based approach to setting cutscores on an examination. It allows stakeholders of an assessment to make decisions and classifications about examinees that are constructive rather than arbitrary (e.g., 70%), meet the goals of the test, and contribute to overall validity. A major advantage of the bookmark method over others is that it utilizes difficulty statistics on all items, making it very data-driven; but this can also be a disadvantage in situations where such data is not available. It also has the advantage of panelist confidence (Karantonis & Sireci, 2006).

The bookmark method operates by delivering a test to a representative sample (or population) of examinees, and then calculating the difficulty statistics for each item. We line up the items in order of difficulty, and experts review the items to place a bookmark where they think a cutscore should be. Nowadays, we use computer screens, but of course in the past this was often done by printing the items in paper booklets, and the experts would literally insert a bookmark.

What is standard setting?

Standard setting (Cizek & Bunch, 2006) is an integral part of the test development process even though it has been undervalued outside of practitioners’ view in the past (Bejar, 2008). Standard setting is the methodology of defining achievement or proficiency levels and corresponding cutscores. A cutscore is a score that serves as a measure of classifying test takers into categories.

Educational assessments and credentialing examinations are often employed to distribute test takers among ordered categories according to their performance across specific content and skills (AERA, APA, & NCME, 2014; Hambleton, 2013). For instance, in tests used for certification and licensing purposes, test takers are typically classified as “pass”—those who score at or above the cutscore—and those who “fail”. In education, students are often classified in terms of proficiency; the Nation’s Report Card assessment (NAEP) in the United States classifies students as Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, Advanced.

However, assessment results could come into question unless the cutscores are appropriately defined. This is why arbitrary cutscores are considered indefensible and lacking validity. Instead, psychometricians help test sponsors to set cutscores using methodologies from the scientific literature, driven by evaluations of item and test difficulty as well as examinee performance.

When to use the bookmark method?

Two approaches are mainly used in international practice to establish assessment standards: the Angoff method (Cizek, 2006) and the Bookmark method (Buckendahl, Smith, Impara, & Plake, 2000). The Bookmark method, unlike the Angoff method, requires the test to be administered prior to defining cutscores based on test data. This provides additional weight to the validity of the process, and better informs the subject matter experts during the process. Of course, many exams require a cutscore to be set before it is published, which is impossible with the bookmark; the Angoff procedure is very useful then.

How do I implement the bookmark method?

The process of standard setting employing the Bookmark method consists of the following stages:

  1. Identify a team of subject matter experts (SMEs); their number should be around 6-12, and led by a test developer/psychometrician/statistician
  2. Analyze test takers’ responses by means of the item response theory (IRT)
  3. Create a list items according to item difficulty in an ascending order
  4. Define the competency levels for test takers; for example, have the 6-12 experts discuss what should differentiate a “pass” candidate from a “fail” candidate
  5. Experts read the items in the ascending order (they do not need to see the IRT values), and place a bookmark where appropriate based on professional judgement across well-defined levels
  6. Calculate thresholds based on the bookmarks set, across all experts
  7. If needed, discuss results and perform a second round

Example of the Bookmark Method

If there are four competency levels such as the NAEP example, then SMEs need to set up three bookmarks in-between: first bookmark is set after the last item in a row that fits the minimally competent candidate for the first level, then second and third. There are thresholds/cutscores from 1 to 2, 2 to 3, and 3 to 4. SMEs perform this individually without discussion, by reading the items.

When all SMEs have provided their opinion, the standard setting coordinator combines all results into one spreadsheet and leads the discussion when all participants express their opinion referring to the bookmarks set. This might look like the sheet below. Note that SME4 had a relatively high standard in their mind, while SME2 had a low standard in their mind – placing virtually every student above an IRT score of 0.0 into the top category!

bookmark method 1

After the discussion, the SMEs are given one more opportunity to set the bookmarks again. Usually, after the exchange of opinions, the picture alters. SMEs gain consensus, and the variation in the graphic is reduced.  An example of this is below.

bookmark method

What to do with the results?

Based on the SMEs’ voting results, the coordinator or psychometrician calculates the final thresholds on the IRT scale, and provides them to the analytical team who would ultimately prepare reports for the assessment across competency levels. This might entail score reports to examinees, feedback reports to teachers, and aggregate reports to test sponsors, government officials, and more.

You can see how the scientific approach will directly impact the interpretations of such reports. Rather than government officials just knowing how many students scored 80-90% correct vs 90-100% correct, the results are framed in terms of how many students are truly proficient in the topic. This makes decisions from test scores – both at the individual and aggregate levels – much more defensible and informative.  They become truly criterion-referenced.  This is especially true when the scores are equated across years to account for differences in examinee distributions and test difficulty, and the standard can be demonstrated to be stable.  For high-stakes examinations such as medical certification/licensure, admissions exams, and many more situations, this is absolutely critical.

Want to talk to an expert about implementing this for your exams?  Contact us.


[AERA, APA, & NCME] (American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education). (2014). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Bejar, I. I. (2008). Standard setting: What is it? Why is it important. R&D Connections, 7, 1-6. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RD_Connections7.pdf

Buckendahl, C. W., Smith, R. W., Impara, J. C., & Plake, B. S. (2000). A comparison of Angoff and Bookmark standard setting methods. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Mid-Western Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL: October 25-28, 2000.

Cizek, G., & Bunch, M. (2006). Standard Setting: A Guide to Establishing and Evaluating Performance Standards on Tests.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cizek, G. J. (2007). Standard setting. In Steven M. Downing and Thomas M. Haladyna (Eds.) Handbook of test development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, pp. 225-258.

Hambleton, R. K. (2013). Setting performance standards on educational assessments and criteria for evaluating the process. In Setting performance standards, pp. 103-130. Routledge. Retrieved from https://www.nciea.org/publications/SetStandards_Hambleton99.pdf

Karantonis, A., & Sireci, S. (2006). The Bookmark Standard‐Setting Method: A Literature Review. Educational Measurement Issues and Practice 25(1):4 – 12.

Lewis, D. M., Mitzel, H. C., & Green, D. R. (1996, June). Standard setting: A Book-mark approach. In D. R. Green (Chair),IRT-based standard setting procedures utilizing behavioral anchoring. Symposium conducted at the Council of Chief State School Officers National Conference on Large-Scale Assessment, Phoenix, AZ.


Certification exam administration and proctoring is a crucial component of the professional credentialing process.  Certification exams are expensive to develop well, so an organization wants to protect that investment by delivering the exam with appropriate security so that items are not stolen.  Moreover, there is an obvious incentive for candidates to cheat.  So, a certification body needs appropriate processes in place to deliver the certification exams.  Here are some tips

1. Determine the best approach for certification exam administration and proctoring

Here are a few of the considerations to take into account.

Cohorts vs Continuous

Do you have cohorts, where events make more sense, or do you need continuous?  For example, if the test is tied to university training programs that graduate candidates in December and May each year, that affects your need for delivery.  Alternatively, some certifications are not tied to such training; you might have to only show work experience.  In those cases, candidates are ready to take the test continuously throughout the year.

Paper vs Computer

Does it make more sense to deliver the test on paper or on computer?  This used to be a cost issue, but now the cost of computerized delivery, especially with online proctoring at home, has dropped significantly while saving so much time for candidates.  Also, some exam types like clinical simulations can only be delivered on computers.

Test centers vs Online proctored vs events

Some types of tests require events, such as a clinical assessment in an actual clinic with standardized patients.  Some tests can be taken anywhere.  Exam events can also coincide with other events; perhaps you have online delivery through the year but deliver a paper version of the test at your annual conference, for convenience.

ansi accreditation certification exam candidates

Geographic dispersion

If your exam is for a small US state or a small country, it might be easy to require exams in a test center, because you can easily set up only one or two test centers to cover the geography.  Some certifications are international, and need to deliver on-demand throughout the year; those are a great fit for online.

Security level needs

If your test has extremely high stakes, there is extremely high incentive to cheat.  An entry-level certification on WordPress is different than a medical licensure exam.  The latter is a better fit for test centers, while the former might be fine with online proctoring on-demand.

2. Evaluate remote proctoring options

If you choose to explore this approach, here are three main types to evaluate.

A. AI only

AI only proctoring means that there are no humans.  The examinee is recorded on video, and AI algorithms flag potential issues, such as if they leave their seat, then notify an administrator (usually a professor) of students with a high number of flags.  This approach is usually not relevant for certifications or other credentialing exams, it is more for low-stakes exams like a Psychology 101 Midterm at your local university.  The vendors for this approach are interested in large-scale projects, such as proctoring all midterms and finals at a university, perhaps hundreds of thousands of exams per year.

B. Record and Review

Record and review proctoring means that the examinee is recorded on video, but that video is watched by a real human and flagged if they think there is cheating, theft, or other issues.  This is much higher quality, and higher price, but has one major flaw that might be concerning to certification tests: if someone steals your test by taking pictures, you won’t find out until tomorrow.  But at least you know who it was and you are certain of what happened, with a video proof.  Perhaps useful for microcredentials or recertification exams.

C. Live Online Proctoring

Live online proctoring (LOP), or what I call “live human proctoring” (because some AI proctoring is also “live” in real time!) means that there is a professional human proctor on the other side of the video from the examinee.  They check the examinee in, confirm their identity, scan the room, provide instructions, and actually watch them take the test.  Some providers like MonitorEDU even have the examinee make a second video stream on their phone, which is placed on a bookshelf or similar spot to see the entire room through the test.  Certainly, this approach is a very good fit with certification exams and other credentialing.  You protect the test content as well as the validity of that individual’s score; that is not possible with the other two approaches.

We have also prepared a list of the best online proctoring software platforms for your use.

3. Determine other technology, psychometric, and operational needs

Next, your organization should establish the other needs for your exams.  Do you require special item types?  Perhaps adaptive testing or linear on the fly testingPsychometric consulting services?  Specific operational controls such as exam time/date windows or navigation limits?  Registration and payment portal?  Write all these up so that you can use the list to shop for a provider.

4. Find an integrated provider for certification exam administration

test development cycle fasttest

Most providers of remote proctoring are just that: remote proctoring.  They do not have a professional platform to manage item banks, schedule examinees, deliver tests, create custom score reports, and analyze psychometrics.  Some do not even integrate with such platforms, and only integrate with learning management systems like Moodle, seeing as their entire target market is only low-stakes university exams.  So if you are seeking a vendor for certification testing or other credentialing, the list of potential vendors is smaller.

Our flagship platform, FastTest, works with 6 different remote proctoring providers and can easily integrate with more.  It also supports paper exams, self-hosted events, and testing centers.

5. Establish the new process

Once you have selected a vendor, work with them to establish the new process for delivering your certification exams with remote proctoring.  Remember, this goes FAR beyond exam day!

  • Candidate Handbook
  • Registration and scheduling
  • Candidate training and practice tests
  • Exam delivery (including verification, environmental rules, materials allowed, break policy, etc.)
  • Test security plan:  What do you do if someone is caught taking pictures of the exam with their phone, or the other potential events?

Ready to start?

Assessment Systems Corporation is one of the world leaders in this endeavor.  Contact us to get a free account in our platform and experience the examinee process, or to receive a demonstration from one of our experts.


A standard setting study is a formal, quantitative process for establishing a performance standard on an exam, such as what score is “proficient” or “passing.”  This is typically manifested as a cutscore which is then used for making decisions about people: hire them, pass them, accept them into university, etc.  Because it is used for such important decisions, a lot of work goes into standard setting, using methods based on scientific research.

What is NOT standard setting?

In the assessment world, there are actually three uses of the word standard:

  1. A formal definition of the content that is being tested, such as the Common Core State Standards in the USA.
  2. A formalized process for delivering exams, as seen in the phrase “standardized testing.”
  3. A benchmark for performance, like we are discussing here.

For this reason, I prefer the term cutscore study, but the phrase standard setting is used more often.

How is a standard setting study used?

As part of a comprehensive test development cycle, after item authoring, item review, and test form assembly, a cutscore or passing score will often be set to determine what level of performance qualified as “pass” or a similar classification.  This cannot be done arbitrarily, such as setting it at 70% because that’s what you saw when you were in school.  That is a legal landmine!  To be legally defensible and eligible for Accreditation of a Certification Program, it must be done using one of several standard-setting approaches from the psychometric literature.  So, if your organization is classifying examinees into Pass/Fail, Hire/NotHire, Basic/Proficient/Advanced, or any other groups, you most likely need a standard setting study.  This is NOT limited to certification, although it is often discussed in that pass/fail context.

What are some methods of a standard setting study?

There have been many methods suggested in the scientific literature of psychometrics.  They are often delineated into examinee-centered and item-centered approaches. Angoff and Bookmark are designed around evaluating items, while Contrasting Groups and Borderline Groups are designed around evaluating the distributions of actual examinee scores.  The Bookmark approach is sort of both types, however, because it uses examinee performance on the items as the object of interest.  You may also be interested in reading this introductory post on setting a cutscore using item response theory.


Modified Angoff analysis

In an Angoff study, a panel of subject matter experts rates each item, estimating the percentage of minimally competent candidates that would answer each item correctly.  If we take the average of all raters, this then translates into the average percentage-correct score that the raters expect from a minimally competent candidate – a very compelling argument for a cutscore to pass competent examinees!  It is often done in tandem with the Beuk Compromise.  The Angoff method does not require actual examinee data, though the Beuk does.


The bookmark method orders the items in a test form in ascending difficulty, and a panel of experts reads through and places a “bookmark” in the book where they think a cutscore should be. This process requires a sufficient amount of real data to calibrate item difficulty accurately, typically using item response theory, which necessitates data from several hundred examinees. Additionally, the method ensures that the cutscore is both valid and reliable, reflecting the true proficiency needed for the test.

Contrasting Groups

contrasting groups cutscore

With the contrasting groups approach, candidates are sorted into Pass and Fail groups based on their performance on a different exam or some other unrelated standard.  We can then compare the score distributions on our exam for the two separate groups, and pick a cutscore that best differentiates Pass vs Fail on the other standard.  An example of this is below.  If using data from another exam, a sample of at least 50 candidates is obviously needed, since you are evaluating distributions.

Borderline Group

The Borderline Group method is similar to the Contrasting Groups method, but it defines a borderline group using alternative information, such as biodata, and evaluates the scores of this group. This method involves selecting individuals who are deemed to be on the threshold of passing or failing based on external criteria. These criteria might include previous performance data, demographic information, or other relevant biodata. The scores from this borderline group are then analyzed to determine the cutscore. This approach helps in refining the accuracy of the cutscore by incorporating more nuanced and contextual information about the test-takers.


The Hofstee approach is often used as a reality check for the modified-Angoff method but can also stand alone as a method for setting cutscores. It involves only a few estimates from a panel of SMEs. Specifically, the SMEs provide estimates for the minimum and maximum acceptable failure rates and the minimum and maximum acceptable scores. This data is then plotted to determine a compromise cutscore that balances these criteria. The simplicity and practicality of the Hofstee approach make it a valuable tool in various testing scenarios, ensuring the cutscore is both realistic and justifiable.


The Ebel approach categorizes test items by both their importance and difficulty level. This method involves a panel of experts who rate each item on these two dimensions, creating a matrix that helps in determining the cutscore. Despite its thorough and structured approach, the Ebel method is considered very old and has largely fallen out of use in modern testing practices. Advances in psychometric techniques and the development of more efficient and accurate methods, such as item response theory, have led to the Ebel approach being replaced by more contemporary standard-setting techniques.

How to choose an approach?

There is often no specifically correct answer.  In fact, guidelines like NCCA do not lay out which method to use, they just tell you to use an appropriate method.

There are several considerations.  Perhaps the most important is whether you have existing data.  The Bookmark, Contrasting Groups, and Borderline Group approaches all assume that we have data from a test already delivered, which we can analyze with the perspective of the latent standard.  The Angoff and Hofstee approaches, in contrast, can be done before a test is ever delivered.  This is arguably less defensible, but is a huge practical advantage.

The choice also depends on whether you can easily recruit a panel of subject matter experts, as that is required for Angoff and Bookmark.  The Contrasting Groups method assumes we have a gold standard, which is rare.

How can I implement a standard setting study?

If your organization has an in-house psychometrician, they can usually do this.  If, for example, you are a board of experts in a profession but lack experience in psychometrics, you need to hire a firm.  We can perform such work for you – contact us to learn more.

Item banking refers to the purposeful creation of a database of assessment items to serve as a central repository of all test content, improving efficiency and quality. The term item refers to what many call questions; though their content need not be restricted as such and can include problems to solve or situations to evaluate in addition to straightforward questions. Regular item review is essential to ensure that each item meets content standards, is fair, and is free from bias, thereby maintaining the integrity and accuracy of the item bank. As a critical foundation to the test development cycle, item banking is the foundation for the development of valid, reliable content and defensible test forms.

Automated item banking systems, such as  Assess.ai  or  FastTest, result in significantly reduced administrative time for developing/reviewing items and assembling/publishing tests, while producing exams that have greater reliability and validity.  Contact us to request a free account.

What is Item Banking?

While there are no absolute standards in creating and managing item banks, best practice guidelines are emerging. Here are the essentials your should be looking for:

   Items are reusable objects; when selecting an item banking platform it is important to ensure that items can be used more than once; ideally, item performance should be tracked not only within a test form but across test forms as well.

   Item history and usage are tracked; the usage of a given item, whether it is actively on a test form or dormant waiting to be assigned, should be easily accessible for test developers to assess, as the over-exposure of items can reduce the validity of a test form. As you deliver your items, their content is exposed to examinees. Upon exposure to many examinees, items can then be flagged for retirement or revision to reduce cheating or teaching to the test.

   Items can be sorted; as test developers select items for a test form, it is imperative that they can sort items based on their content area or other categorization methods, so as to select a sample of items that is representative of the full breadth of constructs we intend to measure.

   Item versions are tracked; as items appear on test forms, their content may be revised for clarity. Any such changes should be tracked and versions of the same item should have some link between them so that we can easily review the performance of earlier versions in conjunction with current versions.

   Review process workflow is tracked; as items are revised and versioned, it is imperative that the changes in content and the users who made these changes are tracked. In post-test assessment, there may be a need for further clarification, and the ability to pinpoint who took part in reviewing an item and expedite that process.

   Metadata is recorded; any relevant information about an item should be recorded and stored with the item. The most common applications for metadata that we see are author, source, description, content area, depth of knowledge, item response theory parameters, and classical test theory statistics, but there are likely many data points specific to your organization that is worth storing.


Managing an Item Bank

Names are important. As you create or import your item banks it is important to identify each item with a unique, but recognizable name. Naming conventions should reflect your bank’s structure and should include numbers with leading zeros to support true numerical sorting.  You might want to also add additional pieces of information.  If importing, the system should be smart enough to recognize duplicates.

Search and filter. The system should also have a reliable sorting mechanism. 

automated item generation cpr


Prepare for the Future: Store Extensive Metadata

Metadata is valuable. As you create items, take the time to record simple metadata like author and source. Having this information can prove very useful once the original item writer has moved to another department, or left the organization. Later in your test development life cycle, as you deliver items, you have the ability to aggregate and record item statistics. Values like discrimination and difficulty are fundamental to creating better tests, driving reliability, and validity.

Statistics are used in the assembly of test forms while classical statistics can be used to estimate mean, standard deviation, reliability, standard error, and pass rate. 

Item banking statistics

Item response theory parameters can come in handy when calculating test information and standard error functions. Data from both psychometric theories can be used to pre-equate multiple forms.

In the event that your organization decides to publish an adaptive test, utilizing computerized adaptive testing delivery, item parameters for each item will be essential. This is because they are used for intelligent selection of items and scoring examinees. Additionally, in the event that the integrity of your test or scoring mechanism is ever challenged, documentation of validity is essential to defensibility and the storage of metadata is one such vital piece of documentation.


Increase Content Quality: Track Workflow

Utilize a review workflow to increase quality. Using a standardized review process will ensure that all items are vetted in a similar matter. Have a step in the process for grammar, spelling, and syntax review, as well as content review by a subject matter expert. As an item progresses through the workflow, its development should be tracked, as workflow results also serve as validity documentation.

Accept comments and suggestions from a variety of sources. It is not uncommon for each item reviewer to view an item through their distinctive lens. Having a diverse group of item reviewers stands to benefit your test-takers, as they are likely to be diverse as well!

item review kanban


Keep Your Items Organized: Categorize Them

Identify items by content area. Creating a content hierarchy can also help you to organize your item bank and ensure that your test covers the relevant topics. Most often, we see content areas defined first by an analysis of the construct(s) being tested. In the event of a high school science test, this may include the evaluation of the content taught in class. A high-stakes certification exam, almost always includes a job-task analysis. Both methods produce what is called a test blueprint, indicating how important various content areas are to the demonstration of knowledge in the areas being assessed.

Once content areas are defined, we can assign items to levels or categories based on their content. As you are developing your test, and invariably referring back to your test blueprint, you can use this categorization to determine which items from each content area to select.


The Benefits of Item Banking

There is no doubt that item banking is a key aspect of developing and maintaining quality assessments. Utilizing best practices, and caring for your items throughout the test development life cycle, will pay great dividends as it increases the reliability, validity, and defensibility of your assessment. Moreover, good item banking will make the job easier and more efficient thus reducing the cost of item development and test publishing.


Ready to Improve assessment quality through item banking?

Visit our Contact Us page, where you can request a demonstration or a free account (up to 500 items).

standard setting

If you have worked in the field of assessment and psychometrics, you have undoubtedly encountered the word “standard.” While a relatively simple word, it has the potential to be confusing because it is used in three (and more!) completely different but very important ways. Here’s a brief discussion.

Standard = Cutscore

As noted by the well-known professor Gregory Cizek here, “standard setting refers to the process of establishing one or more cut scores on a test.” The various methods of setting a cutscore, like Angoff or Bookmark, are referred to as standard setting studies. In this context, the standard is the bar that separates a Pass from a Fail. We use methods like the ones mentioned to determine this bar in as scientific and defensible fashion as possible, and give it more concrete meaning than an arbitrarily selected round number like 70%. Selecting a round number like that will likely get you sued since there is no criterion-referenced interpretation.

Standard = Blueprint

If you work in the field of education, you often hear the term “educational standards.” These refer to the curriculum blueprints for an educational system, which also translate into assessment blueprints, because you want to assess what is on the curriculum. Several important ones in the USA are noted here, perhaps the most common of which nowadays is the Common Core State Standards, which attempted to standardize the standards across states. These standards exist to standardize the educational system, by teaching what a group of experts have agreed upon should be taught in 6th grade Math classes for example. Note that they don’t state how or when a topic should be taught, merely that 6th Grade Math should cover Number Lines, Measurement Scales, Variables, whatever – sometime in the year.

Standard = Guideline

If you work in the field of professional certification, you hear the term just as often but in a different context, accreditation standards. The two most common are the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). These two organizations are a consortium of credentialing bodies that give a stamp of approval to credentialing bodies, stating that a Certification or Certificate program is legit. Why? Because there is no law to stop me from buying a textbook on any topic, writing 50 test questions in my basement, and selling it as a Certification. It is completely a situation of caveat emptor, and these organizations are helping the buyers by giving a stamp of approval that the certification was developed with accepted practices like a Job Analysis, Standard Setting Study, etc.

In addition, there are the professional standards for our field. These are guidelines on assessment in general rather than just credentialing. Two great examples are the AERA/APA/NCME Standards for Educational and Psychological Measurement and the International Test Commission’s Guidelines (yes they switch to that term) on various topics.

Also: Standardized = Equivalent Conditions

The word is also used quite frequently in the context of standardized testing, though it is rarely chopped to the root word “standard.” In this case, it refers to the fact that the test is given under equivalent conditions to provide greater fairness and validity. A standardized test does NOT mean multiple choice, bubble sheets, or any of the other pop connotations that are carried with it. It just means that we are standardizing the assessment and the administration process. Think of it as a scientific experiment; the basic premise of the scientific method is holding all variables constant except the variable in question, which in this case is the student’s ability. So we ensure that all students receive a psychometrically equivalent exam, with equivalent (as much as possible) writing utensils, scrap paper, computer, time limit, and all other practical surroundings. The problem comes with the lack of equivalence in access to study materials, prep coaching, education, and many bigger questions… but those are a societal issue and not a psychometric one.

So despite all the bashing that the term gets, a standardized test is MUCH better than the alternatives of no assessment at all, or an assessment that is not a level playing field and has low reliability. Consider the case of hiring employees: if assessments were not used to provide objective information on applicant skills and we could only use interviews (which are famously subjective and inaccurate), all hiring would be virtually random and the amount of incompetent people in jobs would increase a hundredfold. And don’t we already have enough people in jobs where they don’t belong?

job analysis

Subject matter experts are an important part of the process in developing a defensible exam.  There are several ways that their input is required.  Here is a list from highest involvement/responsibility to lowest:

  1. Serving on the Certification Committee (if relevant) to decide important things like eligibility pathways
  2. Serving on panels for psychometric steps like Job Task Analysis or Standard Setting (Angoff)
  3. Writing and reviewing the test questions
  4. Answering the survey for the Job Task Analysis

Who are Subject Matter Experts?

A subject matter expert (SME) is someone with knowledge of the exam content.  If you are developing a certification exam for widgetmakers, you need a panel of expert widgetmakers, and sometimes other stakeholders like widget factory managers.

You also need test development staff and psychometricians.  Their job is to guide the process to meet international standards, and make the SME time the most efficient.

Example: Item Writing Workshop

psychometric training and workshopsThe most obvious usage of subject matter experts in exam development is item writing and review. Again, if you are making a certification exam for experienced widgetmakers, then only experienced widgetmakers know enough to write good items.  In some cases, supervisors do as well, but then they are also SMEs.  For example, I once worked on exams for ophthalmic technicians; some of the SMEs were ophthalmic technicians, but some of the SMEs (and much of the nonprofit board) were ophthalmologists, the medical doctors for whom the technicians worked.

An item writing workshop typically starts with training on item writing, including what makes a good item, terminology, and format.  Item writers will then author questions, sometimes alone and sometimes as a group or in pairs.  For higher stakes exams, all items will then be reviewed/edited by other SMEs.

Example: Job Task Analysis

Job Task Analysis studies are a key step in the development of a defensible certification program.  It is the second step in the process, after the initial definition, and sets the stage for everything that comes afterward.  Moreover, if you seek to get your certification accredited by organizations such as NCCA or ANSI, you need to re-perform the job task analysis study periodically. JTAs are sometimes called job analysis, practice analysis, or role delineation studies.

The job task analysis study relies heavily on the experience of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), just like Cutscore studies. The SMEs have the best tabs on where the profession is evolving and what is most important, which is essential both for the initial JTA and the periodic re-set of the exam. The frequency depends on how quickly your field is evolving, but a cycle of 5 years is often recommended.

The goal of the job task analysis study is to gain quantitative data on the structure of the profession.  Therefore, it typically utilizes a survey approach to gain data from as many professionals as possible.  This starts with a group of SMEs generating an initial list of on-the-job tasks, categorizing them, and then publishing a survey.  The end goal is a formal report with a blueprint of what knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are required for certification in a given role or field, and therefore what are the specifications of the certification test.

  • Observe— Typically the psychometrician (that’s us) shadows a representative sample of people who perform the job in question (chosen through Panel Composition) to observe and take notes. After the day(s) of observation, the SMEs sit down with the observer so that he or she may ask any clarifying questions.

    The goal is to avoid doing this during the observation so that the observer has an untainted view of the job.  Alternatively, your SMEs can observe job incumbents – which is often the case when the SMEs are supervisors.

  • Generate— The SMEs now have a corpus of information on what is involved with the job, and generate a list of tasks that describe the most important job-related components. Not all job analysis uses tasks, but this is the most common approach in certification testing, hence you will often hear the term job task analysis as a general term.
  • Survey— Now that we have a list of tasks, we send a survey out to a larger group of SMEs and ask them to rate various features of each task.

    How important is the task? How often is it performed? What larger category of tasks does it fall into?

  • Analyze— Next, we crunch the data and quantitatively evaluate the SMEs’ subjective ratings to determine which of the tasks and categories are most important.

  • Review— As a non-SME, the psychometrician needs to take their findings back to the SME panel to review the recommendation and make sure it makes sense.

  • Report— We put together a comprehensive report that outlines what the most important tasks/categories are for the given job.  This in turn serves as the foundation for a test blueprint, because more important content deserves more weight on the test.

    This connection is one of the fundamental links in the validity argument for an assessment.

Example: Cutscore studies

When the JTA is completed, we have to determine who should pass the assessment, and who should fail. This is most often done using the modified Angoff process, where the SMEs conceptualize a minimally competent candidate (MCC) and then set pass/fail point so that the MCC would just barely pass.  There are other methods too, such as Bookmark or Contrasting Groups.

For newly-launching certification programs, these processes go hand-in-hand with item writing and review. The use of evidence-based practices in conducting the job task analysis, test design, writing items, and setting a cutscore serve as the basis for a good certification program.  Moreover, if you are seeking to achieve accreditation – a third part stamp of approval that your credential is high quality – documentation that you completed all these steps is required.

Performing these tasks with a trained psychometrician inherently checks a lot of boxes on the accreditation to-do list, which can position your organization well for the future. When it comes to accreditation— the psychometricians and measurement specialists at Assessment Systems have been around the block a time or two. We can walk you through the lengthy process of becoming accredited, or we can help you perform these tasks a la carte.

Have you heard about standard setting approaches such as the Hofstee method, or perhaps the Angoff, Ebel, Nedelsky, or Bookmark methods?  There are certainly various ways to set a defensible cutscore or a professional credentialing or pre-employment test.  Today, we are going to discuss the Hofstee method.  You may also be interested in reading this introductory post on setting a cutscore using item response theory.

Why Standard Setting?

Certification organizations that care about the quality of their examinations need to follow best practices and international standards for test development, such as the Standards laid out by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  One component of that is standard setting, also known as cutscore studies.  One of the most common and respected approaches for that is the modified-Angoff methodology.

However, the Angoff approach has one flaw: the subject matter experts (SMEs) tend to expect too much out of minimally competent candidates, and sometimes set a cutscore so high that even they themselves would not pass the exam.  There are several reasons this can occur.  For example, raters might think “I would expect anyone that worked for me to know how to do this” and not consider the fact that people who work for them might have 10 years of experience while test candidates could be fresh out of training/school and have the topic only touched on for 5 minutes.  SMEs often forget what it was like to be a much younger and inexperienced version of themselves.

For this reason, several compromise methods have been suggested to compare the Angoff-recommended cutscore with a “reality check” of actual score performance on the exam, allowing the SMEs to make a more informed decision when setting the official cutscore of the exam.  I like to use the Beuk method and the Hofstee method.

The Hofstee Method

One method of adjusting the cutscore based on raters’ impressions of the difficulty of the test and possible pass rates is the Hofstee method (Mills & Melican, 1987; Cizek, 2006; Burr et al., 2016).  This method requires the raters to estimate four values:

  1. The minimum acceptable failure rate
  2. The maximum acceptable failure rate
  3. The minimum cutscore, even if all examinees failed
  4. The maximum cutscore, even if all examinees passed

The first two values are failure rates, and are therefore between 0% and 100%, with 100% indicating a test that is too difficult for anyone to pass.  The latter two values are on the raw score scale, and therefore range between 0 and the number of items in the test, again with a higher value indicating a more difficult cutscore to achieve.

These values are paired, and the line that passes through the two points estimated.  The intersection of this line with the failure rate function, is the recommendation of the adjusted cutscore.   


How can I use the Hofstee Method?

Unlike the Beuk, the Hofstee method does not utilize the Angoff ratings, so it represents a completely independent reality check.  In fact, it is sometimes used as a standalone cutscore setting method itself, but because it does not involve rating of every single item, I recommend it be used in concert with the Angoff and Beuk approaches.



If you are involved with certification testing and are accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA), you have come across the term decision consistency.  NCCA requires you to submit a report of 11 important statistics each year, each for all active test forms.  These 11 provide a high level summary of the psychometric health of each form; more on that report here.  One of the 11 is decision consistency.

What is Decision Consistency?

Decision consistency is an estimate of how consistent the pass/fail decision is on your test.  That is, if someone took your test today, had their brain wiped of that memory, and took the test again next week, what is the probability that they would obtain the same classification both times?  This is often estimated as a proportion or percentage, and we would of course hope that this number is high, but if the test is unreliable it might not be.

The reasoning behind the need for a index specifically on this is that the psychometric aspect we are trying to estimate is different than reliability of point scores (Moltner, Timbil, & Junger, 2015; Downing & Mehrens, 1978).  The argument is that examinees near the cutscore are of interest, and reliability evaluates the entire scale.  It’s for this reason that if you are using item response theory (IRT), the NCCA allows you to instead submit the conditional standard error of measurement function at the cutscore.  But all of the classical decision consistency indices evaluate all examinees, and since most candidates are not near the cutscore, this inflates the baseline.  Only the CSEM – from IRT – follows the line of reasoning of focusing on examinees near the cutscore.

An important distinction that stems from this dichotomy is that of decision consistency vs. accuracy.  Consistency refers to receiving the same pass/fail classification each time if you take the test twice.  But what we really care about is whether your pass/fail based on the test matches with your true state.  For a more advanced treatment on this, I recommend Lathrop (2015).

Indices of Decision Consistency

There are a number of classical methods for estimating an index of decision consistency that have been suggested in the psychometric literature.  A simple and classic approach is Hambleton (1972), which is based on an assumption that examinees actually take the same test twice (or equivalent forms).  Of course, this is rarely feasible in practice, so a number of methods were suggested over the next few years on how to estimate this with a single test administration to a given set of examinees.  These include Huynh (1976), Livingston (1972), and Subkoviak (1976).  These are fairly complex.  I once reviewed a report from a psychometrician that faked the Hambleton index because they didn’t have the skills to figure out any of the indices.

How does decision consistency relate to reliability?

The note I made above about unreliability is worth another visit, however.  After the rash of publications on the topic, Mellenbergh and van der Linden (1978; 1980) pointed out that if you assume a linear loss function for misclassification, the conventional estimate of reliability – coefficient alpha – serves as a solid estimate of decision consistency.  What is a linear loss function?  It means that a misclassification is worse if the person’s score is further from the cutscore.  That is, of the cutscore is 70, failing someone with a true score of 80 is twice as bad as failing someone with a true score of 75.  Of course, we never know someone’s true score, so this is a theoretical assumption, but the researchers make an excellent point.

But while research amongst psychometricians on the topic cooled since they made that point, NCCA still requires one of the statistics -most from the 1970s – to be reported.  The only other well-known index on the topic was Hanson and Brennan (1990).  While the indices have been show to be different than classical reliability, I remain to be convinced that they are the right approach.  Of course, I’m not much of a fan of classical test theory at all in the first place; that acceptance of CSEM from IRT is definitely aligned with my views on how psychometrics should tackle measurement problems.

SIFT test security data forensics

Test fraud is an extremely common occurrence.  We’ve all seen articles about examinee cheating.  However, there are very few defensible tools to help detect it.  I once saw a webinar from an online testing provider that proudly touted their reports on test security… but it turned out that all they provided was a simple export of student answers that you could subjectively read and form conjectures.  The goal of SIFT is to provide a tool that implements real statistical indices from the corpus of scientific research on statistical detection of test fraud, yet is user-friendly enough to be used by someone without a PhD in psychometrics and experience in data forensics.  SIFT still provides more collusion indices and other analysis than any other software on the planet, making it the standard in the industry from the day of its release.  The science behind SIFT is also being implemented in our world-class online testing platform, FastTest.  It is also worth noting that FastTest supports computerized adaptive testing, which is known to increase test security.

Interested?  Download a free trial version of SIFT!

What is Test Fraud?

As long as tests have been around, people have been trying to cheat them.  This is only natural; anytime there is a system with some sort of stakes/incentive involved (and maybe even when not), people will try to game that system.  Note that the root culprit is the system itself, not the test. Blaming the test is just shooting the messenger.  However, in most cases, the system serves a useful purpose.  In the realm of assessment, that means that K12 assessments provide useful information on curriculum on teachers, certification tests identify qualified professionals, and so on.  In such cases, we must minimize the amount of test fraud in order to preserve the integrity of the system.

When it comes to test fraud, the old cliche is true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You’ll undoubtedly see that phrase at conferences and in other resources.  So I of course recommend that your organization implement reasonable preventative measures to deter test fraud.  Nevertheless, there will still always be some cases.  SIFT is intended to help find those.  Also, some examinees might also be deterred by the knowledge that such analysis is even being done.

How can SIFT help me with statistical detection of test fraud?

Like other psychometric software, SIFT does not interpret results for you.  For example, software for item analysis like  Iteman  and  Xcalibre  do not specifically tell you which items to retire or revise, or how to revise them.  But they provide the output necessary for a practitioner to do so.  SIFT provides you a wide range of output that can help you find different types of test fraud, like copying, proctor help, suspect test centers, brain dump usage, etc.  It can also help find other issues, like low examinee motivation.  But YOU have to decide what is important to you regarding statistical detection of test fraud, and look for relevant evidence.  More information on this is provided in the manual, but here is a glimpse.

SIFT test security data forensics

First, there are a number if indices you can evaluate, as you see above.  SIFT  will calculate those collusion indices for each pair of students, and summarize the number of flags.

sift collusion index analysis

A certification organization could use  SIFT  to look for evidence of brain dump makers and takers by evaluating similarity between examinee response vectors and answers from a brain dump site – especially if those were intentionally seeded by the organization!  We also might want to find adjacent examinees or examinees in the same location that group together in the collusion index output.  Unfortunately, these indices can differ substantially in their conclusions.

Additionally, you might want to evaluate time data.  SIFT  provides this as well.

sift time analysis

Finally, we can roll up many of these statistics to the group level.  Below is an example that provides a portion of  SIFT  output regarding teachers.  Note the Gutierrez has suspiciously high scores but without spending much more time.  Cheating?  Possibly.  On the other hand, that is the smallest N, so perhaps the teacher just had a group of accelerated students.  Worthington, on the other hand, also had high scores but had notably shorter times – perhaps the teacher was helping?

sift group analysis


The Story of SIFT

I started  SIFT  in 2012.  Years ago, ASC sold a software program called  Scrutiny!  We had to stop selling it because it did not work on recent versions of Windows, but we still received inquiries for it.  So I set out to develop a program that could perform the analysis from  Scrutiny! (the Bellezza & Bellezza index) but also much more.  I quickly finished a few collusion indices.  Then unfortunately I had to spend a few years dealing with the realities of business, wasting hundreds of hours in pointless meetings and other pitfalls.  I finally set a goal to release SIFT in July 2016.

Version 1.0 of  SIFT  includes 10 collusion indices (5 probabilistic, 5 descriptive), response time analysis, group level analysis, and much more to aid in the statistical detection of test fraud.  This is obviously not an exhaustive list of the analyses from the literature, but still far surpasses other options for the practitioner, including the choice to write all your own code.  Suggestions?  I’d love to hear them.