Certifications vs. certificates: Creating a new alignment between TestOut courseware and CompTIA credentials
Posted on
July 10, 2023

This feature first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Certificates and certifications are different tools with separate professional and educations purposes.

When we go to a doctor’s appointment for a health-related concern or hire an electrician to perform a repair in our home, we all want to enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the professional we’re relying on is qualified to do the job. We may not always ask the pointed question, but we certainly assume that the nurse, doctor, electrician, mechanic or “name your professional," is qualified.

We might even hope that such a professional has been thoroughly vetted to affirm or guarantee to the public that they are in fact, qualified to do the job. That vetting process is precisely why certification exists.


A certification is designed, developed, and deployed with several goals in mind:

1) Provide employers assurances that they are hiring a professional who is qualified to perform a job.
2) Protect the public at large from malpractice and incompetence.
3) Provide unbiased, third-party oversight into ongoing maintenance and review of staff competence.

CompTIA’s certifications are normally focused on a target job role, and therefore the development process starts with the job in mind. Job analysis forms the backbone of the entire value proposition. Working with industry subject matter experts (SMEs), and then collecting critical inputs via a global survey, CompTIA collects validity evidence to ensure the certification covers important aspects of the job.

Following rigorous processes, from content development through to beta testing, additional statistical validity evidence is gathered to ensure we are accurately measuring the requisite knowledge and skills. This is finally capped off with a standard-setting process that leverages a criterion-referenced approach to establish the cut score for the certification exam.

And then for additional reasons of validity and integrity, all candidates attempting certification sign a Candidate Agreement, ensuring they each abide by strict rules and policies, while also providing valid forms of ID to confirm the candidate’s identity. In addition, all certification exams are proctored by third-party unbiased proctors to maintain the highest level of integrity.

If a candidate is found to be in violation of a policy, or to have breached security, then CompTIA invalidates that candidate's score, revoking certification, which protects the integrity of the examination process while also maintaining our earlier stated goals of protecting the public and providing assurances to employers around the globe.

So how is this different from a certificate program?

Certificate programs

Certificates and certifications are different tools with separate professional and educations purposes.

While there are many organizations that might create certificate programs using different methodologies, CompTIA’s approach to certificate programs will have the academic market in mind. So one initial key distinction worth nothing is that while certifications focus on industry employers, certificate programs will focus on the needs of the academic market — while not ignoring knowledge and skills needed to perform on the job.

CompTIA’s certificate programs are a tailored solution that will include training and learning materials for high schools and college programs and will relate to specific job functions. They will certainly contain IT knowledge and skills-based elements and will include performance-based tasks, engaging web-based content, and other materials that will make for a dynamic, engaging learning experience.

To be clear, however, in no way does a certificate of completion denote job readiness. Nor does the certificate imply the student has met a standard of competence for a targeted job role.

While certification exists primarily to validate skills, certificate programs exist primarily to guide learners in the development of skills. The specialized skills and knowledge developed under the auspices of a certificate program may be aligned with the skill set needed to perform a job or aspects of a job, but they may just as likely be related to skills for enhancing personal development. Certifications are always about the job role.

Certifications and certificates both point to important customer needs, but they each answer very different questions for those customers. Certification answers the question, "Can you do the job?" Certificates answer the question, "Did you learn what you expected to learn?"

Also worth noting, CompTIA certifications are built separately from training while summative assessments are built in conjunction with training for purposes of validating learning. Again, certifications validate competency to perform in a regular IT job — certificate programs validate acquisition of specific knowledge and skills.

Because certificate programs are built with education as the primary focus and goal, certificate assessments will leverage a norm-referenced approach to establishing passing criteria. A certificate program does not require ID checks nor unbiased third-party proctors to monitor the delivery of the final exam.

CompTIA may provide options for proctoring based on state-level requirements in certain academic circles. As a standard practice, however, CompTIA will not require proctoring of all final exams for certificate programs.

TestOut and the academic market

Certificates and certifications are different tools with separate professional and educations purposes.

With CompTIA's strategic acquisition of TestOut earlier this year, there is a unique opportunity for CompTIA to enhance its presence in schools, helping students at all levels of public and private education build a foundation for IT career success. A respected brand in the academic world, TestOut has been moving toward the professional certification sphere with its TestOut Pro credentials for the past several years.

The TestOut Pro credentials, however, have never been formally accredited. They were created largely to facilitate educators' need for a comprehensive final exam covering the topics addressed by TestOut courses that align with existing industry certifications. As TestOut products are integrated into CompTIA, it has become necessary to reconcile the name and intent of the assessments offered by the combined organization.

As of January 2024, CompTIA will shift TestOut Pro courseware and TestOut Pro certification exams to certificate programs and final assessments, aligning them with a status that better reflects their academic nature and intent. These naming changes will be implemented throughout the TestOut website, marketing materials, and in the products themselves.

The rebranding of TestOut products will address an important distinction between the nature and purpose of those products and CompTIA's existing family of professional IT certifications. But K-12 schools, career colleges, and universities that rely on the academic rigor of TestOut courses and the skills-based nature of TestOut exams will still reap the educational benefits they have come to expect.

Indeed, there are no changes planned to the content or coverage of TestOut courses or exams, or to the way TestOut exams are delivered within the LabSim platform. TestOut certificates will still provide a meaningful recognition of knowledge acquisition and skills mastery. Students with a TestOut certificate will have a strong footing from which to step up to the professional job role readiness verified by CompTIA certifications.

About the Author

Carl Bowman is the senior vice president of exam services at CompTIA.

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