For association executives launching new member certification programs, they should consider how the exam will be administered: via paper and pencil-based testing (PBT) or the more pervasive computer-based testing (CBT) method.

While both modes of testing are efficient, in the testing and assessment industry, experts continually weigh the positives and negatives of CBT and PBT. For example, while computer-based tests have the benefit of added security measures, such as biometrics, migration from PBT could cause a temporary decrease in the number of tests administered. On the other hand, while PBTs may seem less complex than CBT, in the long run, the logistics and delivery of a PBT exam can be complex and can add up financially.

Administrators of certification programs need to look within their business segment to make the best decision for their specific program. When making a decision, association execs should consider the merits of various aspects of the two approaches:

  1. Administration. While PBTs and CBTs can both be administered effectively, each method offers different benefits during test administration. PBT is often a good selection for large, one-time administrations because a considerable number of candidates can be accommodated for a specific scenario. Smaller associations just exploring a new certification may find PBT to be a safe start. On the flip side, reoccurring exams might be better administered via CBT, as computerized administrations allow tests to be delivered more often, at more locations and with a more flexible schedule. Regional associations with affiliate chapters may also find CBT more effective, especially if launching a long-term certification program.
  2. Delivery. Paper-based exam booklets must be physically shipped or delivered from one location to another; therefore, logistics, including the time it takes to ship the exams are an important consideration. Conversely, computer-based exams are typically encrypted by the certification test developer and sent electronically to the test administration site. This enables secure and reliable delivery of the exam in near real time, and allows the exam to be delivered in hundreds to thousands of locations cost-effectively.
  3. Scoring. While paper-based exams are physically sent from the testing site to the scoring location, computerized exams can often be immediately scored. Using CBT, organizations can benefit from consistent results tabulation, increased speed and accuracy of score reporting. However, other test variations such as essay development or free response could necessitate a PBT format. Manual scoring may be more time intensive, but association members will know that their essays were read by authoritative bodies rather than possibly misread by computers. In short, best scoring methods are often dependent on item format.
  4. Security. Security elements exist for both PBT and CBT. While both types of exams are offered in proctored environments, well-orchestrated computerized exams can add a few extra layers of security. CBT is typically more secure because the exams are offered in professional centers that increasingly include biometrics for candidate identification, video surveillance, multiple layers of encryption and certified test center administrators. While cheaters may be deterred from the glaring eye of a paper-based proctor, when taking CBTs, exams are not "seen" until a test center administrator brings it up on a candidate's PC.

After weighing PBT versus CBT options, association execs building complex certification exams benefit by identifying a collaborative testing partner to support, enhance and integrate the exam.  Test service providers are familiar with every aspect of any test format – and can facilitate a successful and reliable exam launch.

In some cases, associations may want to take an existing PBT exam and re-launch it in CBT format to incorporate new items, item types or a completely new exam. Migrating from PBT to CBT breeds a general perception that the migration will cause risk, problems or mistakes; this is a complete fallacy. Test services providers do this every day – and can conduct a migration with very little, if any, impact to your program. Association executives want to afford their members the best possible testing experience when gaining industry certifications. Ultimately, when deciding on a testing format all factors should be considered and weighed against the association's expectations and program goals. Knowing what needs to be accomplished can often help dictate whether a PBT or a CBT is right for the association and the candidate base.

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