Message from the Executive Director: Certificate vs. Certification

I’ve given two recent presentations on the power of Digital Badges (ASAE Annual Conference in August and the first ever Learnapalooza offered by Association Trends in October). Both presentations went well, but I was surprised by the continued clarification needed when discussing the differences in certificate programs and certification programs with a general association management audience. Part of the issue is the widespread use of certification as a general term for education-based training recognition rather than “A process…by which individuals who have demonstrated the level of knowledge and skill required in the profession, are identified.” [ICE Terminology document] 

This misuse of terms might stem from the presumption that one program is better understood by the public than the other. ICE has maintained that each program has its unique properties, purpose, and functionality. Of course, it doesn’t help that both terms are similar in name. 

Why does this matter? Terms are misused all the time. When applied correctly, both models are important, relevant, and useful for assisting organizations in defining and refining a profession or a set of knowledge, skills and/or abilities. However, based on the number of calls and emails received at ICE headquarters from individuals who believe their organization has a certification program vs. a certificate program, I believe the misidentification contributes to the confusion in the marketplace of learners, certificants and the public. This loop of confusion costs organizations money and leads individuals to believe they are certified when, in fact, they received a certificate. The confusion for the public and end user of services from certified individuals is rampant. Ultimately, clarity in the marketplace is paramount. 

ICE released a video on the difference between certificate and certification programs. I encourage you to share this video as you like. ICE has also released a roadmap focused on identifying and using the correct accreditation standards based on the attributes of a program (certificate vs. certification). These tools are free to ICE members. If your organization consults with associations trying to create a program, feel free to distribute and use in your discussions with client organizations. 

This challenge is not a new one, and one that ICE has tried to help clarify over the years with educational material. The defining features document is now gaining wider traction within the association community. It will soon be posted in the ASAE models and samples section of their website on the topic of credentialing (an initiative of the ASAE Professional Development Section Council [PDSC]). If you have models/samples or papers related to certification of documents that might be helpful for other organizations just getting started, send them to me, and I can assist in incorporating them into PDSC’s initiative. 

I welcome your ideas on how ICE can assist in continuing to clarify the important distinction between certificate and certification for the marketplace. I am an optimist so I believe we can impact this conversation and help other organizations determine the right path for their profession using high quality methods. If you agree this is an inherent misunderstanding, please post this article to your social media channels, or circulate to your staff or others who might benefit from deeper clarification. I look forward to hearing from you. Feel free to email me your thoughts at


Further Reading: ICE Resources Available

Certificate or Certification: What's the Difference?: This on-demand webinar provides clarity on the differences between a certificate and certification program, including three major differences based on ICE and ANSI (ISO/ASTM) Standards.

Foundations of Assessment-Based Certificate Programs: This online course provides staff and volunteers basic knowledge and good practices for developing and administering an assessment-based certificate program.

The ABCs of Assessment-Based Certificate (ABC) Program Accreditation: ICE Digest article on what an ABC Program is, how it may serve an organization, and the benefits of ACAP Accreditation.

Validation Strategies for Assessment-Based Certificate (ABC) Programs: This ICE Exchange conference session shares various options for validating assessments. Learn which situations require a job analysis study and alternative validation strategies for situations where a job analysis is not necessary. 


Defining Features of Quality Certification and Assessment-Based Certificate Programs Copyright © 2010. Institute for Credentialing Excellence.

Certification Program

The primary focus of a professional/personnel certification program is on providing an independent assessment of the knowledge, skills, and/or competencies required for competent performance of an occupational or professional role or specific work-related tasks and responsibilities. 

Certification also is intended to measure or enhance continued competence through recertification or renewal requirements. 

The certification awarded designates that participants have demonstrated the requisite, work-related knowledge, skills, or competencies and met other requirements established by the certification program provider (e.g., academic degree, specified number of years of occupational or professional experience). 

Assessment-Based Certificate Program

The primary focus of an assessment-based certificate program is on facilitating the accomplishment of intended learning outcomes. Although assessment is an integral part of the certificate program, the primary purpose of the program is to provide education and training which supports the accomplishment of the intended learning outcomes. 

The certificate awarded designates that participants have completed the required education/training and demonstrated accomplishment of the intended learning outcomes. 

Download the full Defining Features document here.

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