Upholding Standards: Why Open-Book Exams Fall Short in Professional Certification

Upholding Standards: Why Open-Book Exams Fall Short in Professional Certification

Francis Neric, M.S., MBA |  June 11, 2024
Upholding Standards

In the ongoing effort to position exercise professionals as part of the health care continuum, maintaining professionalism is paramount. As an industry, we must be hold steadfastly to the ideal of professionalism if exercise professionals (e.g., personal trainers, exercise physiologists, strength and conditioning coaches, clinical exercise physiologists) are to earn the respect of established health occupations. Open-book exams undermine our efforts to position exercise professionals as uniquely qualified professionals in the health care. Further, it is also essential we clarify the distinct roles and significance of educational training programs vs. professional certifications. While both play vital roles in workforce development, conflating the two erodes our ability to defend and protect the health fitness space. 

Educational Programs Assess Student Learning 

Educational programs, particularly those offering certificates, are designed to provide foundational knowledge and skills for a specific job. These programs are essential for laying the groundwork in various in exercise science-related careers and also include opportunities to explore avenues of professional growth. Certificates provide structured learning experiences, covering essential theories, methodologies and practical skills that prepare individuals for entry-level positions. However, the primary objective of an educational certificate is to demonstrate that students have met the learning objectives of a program rather than identify individuals who are qualified and effective professionals. 

Certifications Assess Professional Competency 

NCCA and ISO/IEC 17024 accredited certifications, on the other hand, are independent assessments of professional competency. They serve as a legally defensible validation that an individual has acquired the necessary knowledge and skills, and that they have demonstrated an ability to apply them effectively in real-world scenarios. Certification exams require candidates to pass a standardized assessment that assures the public they are competent and capable of performing their duties safely and effectively. In short, professional certifications are essential for public protection. 

The Danger in Conflating Open-Book Certificate Programs and Professional Certifications 

Conflating open-book certificate programs with professional certification raises substantial concerns about the credibility of the health fitness profession. It is critical we maintain a clear distinction between training (educational programs) and competency assessment (certification). Organizations that consider themselves legitimate cannot call themselves “gold standard” if they use open-book exams. If we in the health fitness industry want to be recognized as essential members of the health care continuum, we must uphold the rigor, value and purpose of professional certification. It’s not just semantics. It’s about professional integrity. 

Commitment to Scientific and Professional Integrity 

2024-2027 ACSM Strategic Plan infographicThe ACSM Board of Trustees (BOT) and the ACSM Committee on Certification and Registry Boards (CCRB) maintain an unwavering commitment to scientific and professional integrity. Science is a fundamental part of all facets of ACSM and has been for 70 years. Science remains front and center in ACSM’s new 2024-2027 strategic plan. In conjunction with the new strategic plan, the ACSM BOT transformed its vision to “extend and enrich lives through the power of movement.” To support this vision, the CCRB revised its mission to “advance the credibility and integrity of ACSM-certified professionals through career-long development with evidence-based practices to benefit all.” ACSM aims to elevate the standards of practice within the health fitness and clinical exercise sectors through rigorous adherence to professional standards and the latest scientific research. ACSM assures its stakeholders that exercise professionals are equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the evolving landscape of the health fitness industry. Through rigorous defense of professional standards, ACSM can assure key stakeholders that its certified professionals are not only qualified but invaluable members of multidisciplinary health care teams. 

Parting Thoughts 

While educational programs play an important role in providing foundational knowledge and skills in the health fitness profession, professional certifications protect the public. Health fitness organizations like ACSM must uphold the distinctions among and unique roles of education, accredited certification and professional registration. ACSM and its CCRB ensure that our registered exercise professionals possess the level of professionalism required to be integral members of the health care continuum. 

Francis_Neric, MS,MBAFrancis Neric, M.S., MBA, currently serves as the associate vice president of certification and credentialing at the American College of Sports Medicine® (ACSM). With professional credentialing experience spanning 16 years, Francis has been instrumental in leading strategic initiatives to enhance the certification, advanced certificate and exam preparation programs to meet the needs of the domestic and international stakeholders of ACSM. Francis holds an MBA in business management from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; an M.S. in clinical exercise physiology from California State University, Fullerton; and a B.S. in exercise science from California State University, Long Beach. Francis combines academic and industry knowledge to drive innovation and excellence in the health fitness industry. Francis is a passionate advocate for raising the bar for professionalism in the health fitness industry and expanding opportunities for exercise professionals in health care.