Psychologist Frank Dattilio, PhD, became curious about credentialing processes in the course of his forensic work. He began to hear psychologists referred to in court as having credentials--or even being "board certified"--by organizations he had never heard of.

Dattilio, himself certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, did an experiment. He sent off an application, curriculum vitae and the required $350 to one of the organizations he had heard mentioned.

A week later and voila! Dattilio had a brand new credential in forensics. He didn't have to undergo any test or interview and he profoundly doubted if the organization had even had the time to check the veracity of his application or curriculum vitae.

"It was stunningly simple," says Dattilio.

Calls coming in to professional organizations, including APA's Practice Directorate, indicate many psychologists have questions about some credentialing organizations and whether their requirements are rigorous enough. And in today's world of managed care and stiffer competition, many find it useful to gain specialty credentials beyond the generic.

But caution is needed because some credentials aren't worth the paper they are printed on.

The Practice Directorate's Jan Ciuccio, who directs the APA College of Professional Psychology and its certification in alcohol and drug treatment, receives numerous calls from psychologists asking whether a particular credential is credible. While she cautions generally that only enforcement agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission or state attorneys general can police the offering of bogus credentials, Ciuccio assists callers by offering them ways to help determine "whether a particular credential is worth the time, effort and money to pursue."

The first step? Ask your state association and colleagues if they are familiar with a particular credential and what they think of its quality and integrity. Also, contact the credentialing organization directly and ask such questions as:

  • How long has the organization been in existence?

  • Is it nonprofit?

  • Is the organization affiliated with a well-known entity within the profession, such as a national professional association?

  • How many individuals are currently certified by this organization?

  • Is there a certification examination? If so, was a practice analysis (also called a task analysis or job analysis) done as part of the development of that exam?

  • If there is an exam, what is the name of the examination company that guided its development?

  • Who are the professionals who provided the expertise in the subject matter for the exam?

  • Does the organization require certificants to get continuing education to maintain certification?

  • Who are the members of the board of directors and what are their professional affiliations?

  • Who is the organization's executive director and what is his or her professional background?

Psychologists may also want to note some of the standards of the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, a body that accredits certifying organizations themselves. The commission calls for certifying bodies to demonstrate adequate resources and staff knowledge for ongoing certification and recertification activities. It also calls for them to demonstrate that the testing mechanisms adequately measure the knowledge and skill required for entry, maintenance and advancement in the certification area.

Credible certifying entities should also be willing to provide descriptive materials on the procedures used in the exam construction and validation, as well as all eligibility requirements and determination procedures and a comprehensive summary or outline of the information, knowledge or functions covered by the exam.

According to Ciuccio, "a psychologist should take the time to investigate a credentialing entity with the assistance of appropriate guidelines and be cautious about submitting an application if the resulting information raises potential red flags."