Certification vs Licensure Exams

Certification and Licensure – What is the difference

Certification and Licensure 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.

certification test

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.

Certification And Licensure Testing

Certification and Licensure

Usually, there is a test that you must pass, for both certification and 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?

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 and licensure.  ICRC notes that they are sometimes complementary or parallel processes.

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.  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
Nathan Thompson, PhD

Nathan Thompson, PhD, is CEO and Co-Founder of Assessment Systems Corporation (ASC). He is a psychometrician, software developer, author, and researcher, and evangelist for AI and automation. His mission is to elevate the profession of psychometrics by using software to automate psychometric work like item review, job analysis, and Angoff studies, so we can focus on more innovative work. His core goal is to improve assessment throughout the world.

Nate was originally trained as a psychometrician, with an honors degree at Luther College with a triple major of Math/Psych/Latin, and then a PhD in Psychometrics at the University of Minnesota. He then worked multiple roles in the testing industry, including item writer, test development manager, essay test marker, consulting psychometrician, software developer, project manager, and business leader. He is also cofounder and Membership Director at the International Association for Computerized Adaptive Testing (iacat.org). He’s published 100+ papers and presentations, but his favorite remains https://scholarworks.umass.edu/pare/vol16/iss1/1/.

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