Three Common Questions (and Misconceptions) about NCCA Accreditation
The process of receiving or renewing NCCA accreditation can feel overwhelming, and can lead to questions that may not appear to have clearly defined answers. How many forms does our program need to publish? Is a retake policy really important? Why would our program need to check examination items for bias? Questions like these can often arise when assembling materials for an NCCA accreditation application, but they should not cause roadblocks to pursuing the NCCA’s recognition. Here we attempt to clarify a few of these common questions and misconceptions.
First, programs often wonder how many forms they should have available to candidates and how their accreditation may be affected by their number of available forms. There is often a misconception that the NCCA will not award accreditation to a program that only offers a single form of an examination. Although the NCCA will certainly request information on the number and type of forms available, the NCCA accreditation process is more focused on a program’s rationale for the number of forms. In some instances, elements of a program such as small volume, a single administration event per year, a retake policy that involves a long span of time, etc., may lead a program to determine that a single form is appropriate. On the other hand, programs where item visibility is high (high volume) or candidates are able to take the examination multiple times in a short timeframe would likely benefit from having multiple forms available at any given time. The NCCA wants to be aware of not only how many forms are available, but more importantly, the rationale behind that decision. Program leaders should weigh all of these factors and develop a form publication schedule (how many forms administered at once, frequency of republication) that fits their requirements and is feasible within their available resources.
One factor that directly impacts the number of published forms is the retake policy. Candidates should be informed about how often they are allowed to retake an examination as well as how long they are required to wait between administrations. Retake policies need to be based upon a number of factors, including issues such as revenue implications (i.e., short time between retakes = increased revenue from more administrations), but also on the goals for the candidate population. For example, a healthcare certification examination may want to strongly encourage its candidates to study for a longer period of time between retakes to allow for a deeper grasp of the material. Although no program can guarantee that candidates who fail an examination will spend the time prior to the next administration studying the content, a longer span will likely require increased focus from the candidate rather than simply quickly trying to test again. If, however, a program does decide that a short time between retakes is the best route (i.e., two weeks or less), then having more than a single form available would be wise in order to limit item exposure and reduce the potential for cheating or distribution of content. The NCCA often wants to see how a program’s candidate factors (volume, exam stakes, etc.) influence how the retake policy was established. Including this rationale in the accreditation application demonstrates to the NCCA that many, if not all, facets of the program are unified.
Second, the NCCA often wants to see evidence of programs being sensitive to their candidate population by incorporating a bias review as part of their item review/revision process. A bias review helps to ensure (although does not guarantee) that any elements of an item’s text do not cause an unintended emotional reaction from the reader or use terms that are only relevant to a particular demographic of individuals. Certification examination items should stay focused on the content that will help differentiate those who should earn the credential from those who should not. Therefore, if the text sparks a feeling or a level of discomfort that is not related to the content or the purpose of the question, then it should be revised. Oftentimes, item writers may unintentionally include text that would be considered biased – whether it is a regional term that is not recognized everywhere, or a cultural scenario with which everyone may not be familiar, or even a more blatant context that would be offensive to a group of people. If a program is able, it is good practice to have a panel of individuals that is representative of various demographics (gender, ethnicity, orientation, etc.) read through test items. These individuals should not be subject matter experts, as their role is not to evaluate the content of the item; rather, they should be trained to read the items and flag any information that strikes them as biased (offensive, distorted, unfair, etc.). Any program that is applying for NCCA accreditation (or accreditation renewal) would benefit from including a bias review process in their operations to demonstrate a candidate sensitivity that extends beyond the content being tested. During the NCCA’s review of an accreditation application (or renewal), they will likely look for a systematic and inclusive process for the development of examination items, and a bias review can be one critical step in that process.
Perhaps the most important element of preparing a for NCCA accreditation is establishing test development processes and procedures that not only meet the goals (and stay within the constraints) of the program, but also help to enhance the strength of the program’s structure. Decisions about test development such as the number of forms to produce, the retake policy, and including a bias review should be made with care given to a program’s goals, needs, and resources. Providing clear and accurate documentation supporting each of these elements demonstrates to the NCCA that a program has thoughtfully detailed the overall plan. The accreditation application process can feel cumbersome, but it provides an opportunity to gather documents, review practices, and re-visit areas of need. Whether it is a program’s first time going through the process or the relationship is well-established, it is critical to document all aspects of development as thoroughly as possible.