Two distinct and separate types of accreditation exist. One ensures standards for the testing or assessment of a person’s knowledge and the other for the education/curriculum required for a proficient base of knowledge. Accreditation that is concerned with testing or measurement is the type of accreditation that is recommended by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) through the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA).
Often, people say that this process produces a “legally defensible” exam. What many believe is meant by legally defensible is that a personal trainer who is sued will have a better chance of winning the lawsuit if he or she has been certified by a program with an exam that is third-party accredited. While that might be true, technically what is meant by “legally defensible” is that the exam has been shown to a fair measure of a person’s knowledge and does not discriminate unfairly due to differences such as cultural background or language. Therefore, it has been determined to be fair, valid and reliable for those taking the test. Accrediting bodies that are established to ensure standards for assessment (or measurement of knowledge) do so using the principles of a science called psychometrics (the NCCA is an example of this type of accrediting body). Psychometrics is based on a set of standards that have been developed by specialists in this field. The premise behind this process is that if these psychometric rules are adhered to by a certification organization in the development of a test, then the test will be a fair assessment of the knowledge of the person taking the test. This type of accreditation is not intended to determine whether the knowledge base/education being tested is adequate for the profession. Instead its concern is whether the exam is accurately and fairly measuring the knowledge that the person is expected to have to pass the test.
This type of accreditation is called “process based.” Opponents of process-based accreditations as a way to raise the standards for personal training certification point out that this type of accreditation process is strongest in those industries where there is only one certification organization. When there are multiple certification organizations within a single industry, the inability of process-based accreditation to lead certifiers to a single standard, opponents say, becomes painfully apparent.
The second type of accreditation ensures standards for the education/curriculum or training needed to acquire a proficient level of expertise in a profession. One accrediting body that works with professional associations to establish educational standards and accredit programs is the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). CAAHEP is recognized by CHEA and the U.S. Department of Education, so it fits into IHRSA’s recommendation. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) sponsors a committee within CAAHEP, the Committee on Accreditation for the Exercise Sciences (CoAES). In July 2004, that committee established educational standards for baccalaureate (four-year) programs in exercise science and master’s (six year) programs in exercise physiology.
ACSM and the CoAES asked that the profession of personal trainer be added to the CAAHEP system, and the CAAHEP board of directors approved that request in November 2004. The next step will be development of educational standards for such programs. These programs could be at the certificate level (not to be confused with certification), which can be obtained in conjunction with a degreed program, or the associate degree level (or both), depending upon the educational standards that are ultimately approved.
Technically, there is no way for CAAHEP to accredit education programs at the non-degreed level, which presents a problem since this describes most personal training certification programs in our industry. And before there can be a way to accredit or approve in any formal way non-degreed training or education programs, there has to be an industry consensus of the knowledge base needed to be proficient in the profession. Currently, there are no national education/curriculum standards established for personal trainer certification programs at the non-degreed level.
In the fitness industry each certification organization uses its own job-skill analysis for establishing trainer competencies. As a result, a different set of skills is tested by each organization, and thus a certification issued by one organization means something different than a certification issued by another, no matter who accredits them. Similarly, because various accreditation agencies rely on the job-task analysis used by a particular certification organization, an accreditation means something different for each organization as well. So again, there are no national standards for becoming a certified personal fitness trainer.