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Certification vs. Certificate: These terms might seem similar, but mean quite different things.   Both of these terms here are a credential, which is an umbrella term.  A credential refers to any type of supporting document/attestation that you have done something or know something, and includes simple things like a Driver’s License all the way to a Medical Doctor degree with a Neurosurgery certification.  For more discussion, we recommend you check out the aptly named Institute for Credentialing Excellence.



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 ________).

A lot of work goes into developing good certifications, sometimes millions of dollars.  This includes test development practices like job task analysis, item writer training workshops, modified-Angoff cutscore studies, equating, and item response theory.


A certificate program is less rigorous than a certification, and is often just a piece of paper that you might receive after sitting through a course.  For example, you might take an online course in a MOOC where you watch a few video lectures and perhaps answer a few quizzes with no proctoring, and afterwards you receive a certificate.

A step up from this is an assessment based certificate which requires that you pass a fairly exam afterwards.  This exam is sometimes built with some of the stringent practices of a certification, like a modified-Angoff standard setting study.

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).

Learn more about assessment based certificates with NCCA.

Additional terms beyond Certification vs. Certificate

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!

Digital Badge: This is often similar to a certificate, sometimes a microcredential, but is displayed as a digital icon, such as on your LinkedIn profile.

Accreditation: This 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?  There are strict guidelines to do so, and NCCA Accreditation is one example.

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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 .
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