2016 NCCA Standards Revisions Recap and Takeaways: What You Need to Know

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) has a rich history dating back to 1977 of ensuring the health, welfare and safety of the public through the accreditation of a variety of individual certification programs that assess professional competency.

NCAA uses a peer-review process to establish and maintain accreditation standards, evaluate compliance with the standards and serve as a resource on quality certification. NCCA accredited certification organizations devote significant time and resources to ensure the high quality and defensibility of their programs.

We know that part of NCCA’s mission is to be an independent resource on the essential elements of quality for professional certification programs. In order for NCCA to continue its mission as an authority in this space, it must keep pace with the evolving professional certification industry, maintaining currency with best practices and technology.

This obligation led to the NCCA Standards revisions in January 2016, which are still taking effect. As a result, several Standards were added and/or expanded upon to further clarify compliance.

The NCCA Standards define the minimum criteria that a certification program must meet in order to maintain fidelity to its mission and uphold obligations to the public and other stakeholders. Accordingly, the major themes of the Standards are resources, autonomy, conflicts of interest, representativeness, transparency, accountability, confidentiality, security, psychometric soundness, quality assurance and maintenance of currency with practice. In many ways, the substance of the 2016 Standards has not changed from previous versions. However, the 2016 Standards provide better clarity in process.

The Standards have retained their format, with a main standard, several essential elements that articulate the requirements for meeting that standard, commentary to provide guidance regarding interpretation and evidence needed to demonstrate compliance. The revisions added details to clearly identify specific policies and procedures that must be in place, and to require the rationale for certification requirements. Updates were made to address increasing complexities in testing and new technologies. Additionally, the revision separated the standards for handling confidentiality, conflicts of interest and quality control, requiring identification of specific personnel involved in the certification program and their roles and qualifications, whether as staff, consultants, board members or subject matter experts (SME).

Below are highlights of the 2016 NCCA Revised Standards that we believe continue to remain relevant and important:

Exam Specifications Document

The exam specifications document as envisioned in Standard 15 details the plan for and design of the exam. The standard was created to address all aspects of the exam’s standardization and to ensure consistency. The certification program must establish specifications that describe what the examination is intended to measure as well as design issues such as the use of different item types on all forms of the exam. This document is owned and developed by the certifying organization, but influenced and supported by testing organizations such as Castle.

Critical Components

  • Be transparent in describing objectives. The examination specifications must clearly state the objective of the examination, including what it is intended to measure (the construct), and the level of proficiency implied.
  • Address all elements of the exam. Exam specifications must state the important components of the examination program and provide rationale for the key elements. Examination design considerations must be specified and explained clearly.
  • Apply a well-reasoned weighting system. There must be a plan for how various exam sections will be weighted that is consistent with a job analysis; the plan must provide precise direction regarding the weighting structure for each section.


An important side benefit of having a well-thought-out exam specifications document is that it pulls into a single resource the policies and other information that the psychometrician, test development professional and administrative staff require on an ongoing basis.

Panel Creation

In order to ensure that proper insight and guidance is provided to certification programs and examinations, Standard 13 offers new guidance about the selection and use of panels of qualified SMEs. This helps with various projects such as job analysis, standard setting, and ongoing examination development activities.

Critical Components

  • Maintain proper panel representation. Each panel must be appropriately qualified and broadly representative of stakeholder groups, such as the population that is being certified, as defined by the program. The process of filling the panel with SMEs must be devoid of improper influence.
  • Maintain proper panel documentation. There must be documentation regarding panel member qualifications and responsibilities. It is recommended that minutes of panel meetings document decisions and recommendations.


The new standard on expert panels recommends that the organization employ rotating terms that define the length of service for panel members. A key benefit of having terms with a rotation schedule is that some panelists have experience with the work the panel is charged with and can help to train newer members of the group. The organization can also demonstrate through its policy that the opportunity to participate in important certification projects is available to constituents on a fair and open basis.

Continuing Competence

To maintain an essential level of competence, certificants must continue to acquire new knowledge on an ongoing basis, as the Institute for Credentialing Excellence suggests, showing “knowledge, skills, or ability not only at the time of initial certification but throughout an individual’s professional career.” Standard 22 specifies that the certification program must require periodic recertification.

Critical Components

  • Communicate the purpose and process for recertification. The certification program must define its process for maintaining certification and have a statement of purpose for recertification, with a description of how program elements measure ongoing compliance of certificants with program goals.
  • Define the recertification requirements. A certification program must have a means to verify that certificants have met the recertification requirements. All policies and procedures for recertification must be made visible to the public.
  • Set logical time frames for recertification. Certifications must have a clearly defined time limit with a beginning and an end. This period of time must represent a renewal cycle that is logical and well-reasoned for demonstrating ongoing knowledge in the field.


Standard 22 goes beyond the requirements of previous standards in that there must now be a clear definition of what “ongoing proficiency in the practice of the profession” means. In other words, organizations should now develop a clear construct statement for what the different elements of the recertification program are intended to measure.

You can find the information on the 2016 NCCA Standards here. Also visit our website at to learn more discover more about on high-stakes testing and best practices in certification.


Jim Henderson, Ph.D., is a chief psychometrician and the executive vice president of Castle Worldwide with more than 25 years of service with the company. Henderson is one of the nation’s leading experts on quality licensure and certification testing. He served as chair and psychometrician for the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which is the accreditation body of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE).

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