Understanding Exam Development


Tom Healy, vice president of Water Professionals International, recently spoke at a local college to discuss why certification is important and how WPI works to keep that certification current to the industry as it evolves. The key to this goal is effective examinations. Tom offers a behind-the-scenes explanation of how and why operators are certified. 

He begins by explaining the difference between certification and licensure. Certification is a set of criteria designed to assess the understanding and proficiency of one’s specific body of knowledge. While certification assesses core competency in the area, licensure is the primary agency’s “permit to work” in a particular area. This distinction helps bridge the connection between certification and licensure and describes how they correlate. 

Certification is earned through various steps, including education, training, and examinations. This is where WPI provides services. To be effective, examinations must be thorough and extensive, covering all that operators do in their day-to-day work roles, including the frequency of operations, the criticality of tasks, the ways in which they relate to plant operations, and the ways in which they apply across all jurisdictions. With these goals in mind, exams are written and approved by a group of psychometricians (i.e., experts in measurement, with specialized training in exam development) and a volunteer committee of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and are updated every 5-7 years. Tom collaborates frequently with volunteers to ensure that WPI provides accurate, relevant, and legally defensible examinations for the water and wastewater industries across all jurisdictions. 

To better understand the job of the operator, job analysis surveys are sent out to get real responses from operators in the field. WPI has seen record responses, collecting surveys from over 7,200 participants from 54 U.S. states and territories, and 11 Canadian provinces and territories. The information collected is then passed through the team of SMEs to verify that there are no outliers or outdated questions. The questions are then reviewed by another team of active operators. Job analysis surveys are also critical to understanding operator duties and technologies across jurisdictions, with specific requirements considered when creating exams. 

Next, the volunteer committee selects items to test—each exam has 110 questions in total.  Ten of these are pre-test questions and unscored, included only to measure whether they perform as expected before being formally debuted on an exam. The ten pre-test questions appear at random. This ensures that they are answered with the same consideration and care as all other questions. The reason for this approach is to collect valid statistics and item metrics from real candidates. It serves an extremely important function in exam development. Before a question can appear in certification exams, it must meet a baseline performance criterion, as established through this process. 

Tom explains this process to highlight that while the exams are challenging, they cover a large knowledge base and understanding of what operators do. To develop an exam that covers all information necessary to do such a vital job, at multiple tiers and levels of expertise, WPI takes the steps to understand the job of the operator, distributes a survey to identify specifics, and then collects data to create content outlines and exam specifications. By the time one person sits for an exam, dozens of minds and hundreds of hours have gone into ensuring that each question is relevant, beneficial, and accurate to the duties of the operator.



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