Certification, Certificate, Accreditation: Differences

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Certification, Certificate, Accreditation: These three terms might seem similar, but mean very different things.   Here is a brief overview.  We also recommend you check out the Institute for Credentialing Excellence.

Any of the terms here are often referred to as a credential, as an umbrella term.  A credential refers to any type of supporting document/attestation that you have done something or know something, and includes other terms like License or Degree.



Professional or personnel certification is a voluntary process by which individuals are evaluated against predetermined standards for knowledge, skills, or competencies. Participants who demonstrate that they meet the standards by successfully passing an assessment process are granted the certification.  Note that this 1) refers to an individual (not a program or organization) and 2) refers only to showing that they have competencies (not simply attending or completing a course).
Certifications are usually put out by independent organizations, not a government or other entity (that is licensure).  Usually it is a nonprofit association or board, which can be for a specific country (American Board of _______) or worldwide (International Association of ________).


An assessment-based certificate program is a non-degree granting program that:
(a) provides instruction and training to aid participants in acquiring specific knowledge, skills, and/or competencies associated with intended learning outcomes;
(b) evaluates participants’ achievement of the intended learning outcomes; and
(c) awards a certificate only to those participants who meet the performance, proficiency or passing standard for the assessment(s).

Certification / Certificate are the most similar of all the credentialing terms.


Accreditation says that your Certification or Certificate program meets best practices.  This is NOT for an individual; it refers to an organization or a program.  For example, if a university accredited?  Is a certification program accredited?

One of the most common situations is the latter, of a certification program getting accredited.  There are strict guidelines to do so, and NCCA Accreditation is one example.  However, only the minority of these guidelines refer to aspects of your test, such as cutscores and reliability. The rest pertain to aspects such as board governance, eligibility pathways, security policies, handbooks, and corporate finance. We can help you navigate these waters, in addition to the technical test-related aspects; contact us for more information.

Additional terms beyond Certification / Certificate / Accreditation

License: Like a certification, but it is required by law.  It is usually defined by competencies (a driver’s license means have shown you know how to drive) but not always (a marriage license does not mean you know how to be a good spouse!).

Microcredential: Like a certificate, but even narrower.

Degree / Diploma: Means that you have completed some sort of education.  This can range all the way from a 4-hour online course to 4 years of prestigious medical school!

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Nathan Thompson, PhD

Nathan Thompson earned his PhD in Psychometrics from the University of Minnesota, with a focus on computerized adaptive testing. His undergraduate degree was from Luther College with a triple major of Mathematics, Psychology, and Latin. He is primarily interested in the use of AI and software automation to augment and replace the work done by psychometricians, which has provided extensive experience in software design and programming. Dr. Thompson has published over 100 journal articles and conference presentations, but his favorite remains https://pareonline.net/getvn.asp?v=16&n=1.

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