Competency-based certification is gaining traction in the association community. Should your organization get on board? How does it compare to knowledge-based assessments? One expert sorts out the differences.
The Society for Human Resource Management caused a major splash in the HR community earlier this month when it announced it will launch a new competency-based certification program for HR professionals and move away from a knowledge-based program that the group helped develop years ago.
So, what’s the difference?
“Different groups define ‘competency’ differently, so it’s not black and white,” said Mickie Rops, CAE, president and principal consultant at Mickie Rops Consulting, Inc. “But, in general, those leaning toward the knowledge side of the scale focus on assessing what candidates know, while competency programs assess how candidates can synthesize their knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors to perform their roles successfully.”
Rops, who is working with SHRM to build the new certification program, described a true competency-based exam as one where a test taker actually performs the function of the job and is scored or critiqued—a chef in the kitchen, or a teacher in the classroom, for example.
But competency can be tested through a pencil-and-paper exam too, Rops said. “What SHRM is doing is a little bit beyond the traditional multiple-choice exam. They’re doing some questions where individuals have to use much higher critical-thinking skills and actually rank items,” she said. “So, here’s a scenario, now rate these items from one to four in terms of which is the best approach and which is the worst approach—those kinds of questions.”
The biggest challenge for organizations looking to move to a competency-based certification is lack of resources, said Rops.
“The move to more competency-based testing calls for higher costs and more time to develop, administer, and score the exam,” she said. “Beyond just the costs, the question becomes, do groups even have enough content experts to be able to develop the kinds of questions they need and then score the answers? Because unlike knowledge-based exams where you have more right and wrong answers, competency questions are more subjective.”
Competency-based exams provide a more rigorous path to certification, which could lead to members finding greater value in the program, but that doesn’t mean knowledge-based certifications have lost their significance.
“Many certification programs target entry-level personnel and set out to measure if the body of knowledge in a particular field has been mastered. Here a knowledge-based test is appropriate,” Rops said. “You don’t want to really make it a much more difficult exam than what’s needed for the purpose of the certification. What type of exam and the whole program you develop, it all begins with who’s your target audience and what goals you’re trying to help them accomplish.”