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Foundations of the NBCOT Certification Examinations

Exam Development and Construction

What guidelines are followed?
The procedures used to prepare the NBCOT certification examinations are consistent with the technical guidelines recommended by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Council on Measurement in Education, the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, and the Association of Test Publishers. NBCOT test development and administration procedures also adhere to relevant sections of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection (EEOC, 1978). NBCOT maintains dual accreditation with the National Commission for Certifying Agencies and the American National Standards Institute, which also ensures NBCOT meets specific assessment standards.

How are the exams constructed?
OTR and COTA certification examinations are constructed using a combination of scored (pre-equated) items and non-scored (field-test) items. Items for each examination are selected from the respective item banks in proportions consistent with the OTR and COTA exam outlines. Items selected as scored items for each examination must be field-tested on a sufficiently large sample of candidates and have acceptable item-level psychometric statistics. The newly constructed exams undergo a rigorous review and validation process with a committee of subject matter experts to ensure the examinations contain content reflective of current entry-level occupational therapy practice.

How is the content determined?
The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA, 2014) distinctly indicates a practice analysis must be completed to define domains and tasks that characterize proficient performance within the profession. The OTR and COTA examinations are constructed based on the results of practice analysis studies that identify a clearly delineated set of domains, tasks, and associated knowledge required for occupational therapy practice. The ultimate goal of a practice analysis study is to ensure a representative correlation of examination content to practice.

When were the practice analysis studies completed?
NBCOT completed the most recent OTR and COTA practice analysis studies in 2012 (NBCOT, 2012a; NBCOT, 2012b), with subsequent studies to be completed in 2017. Separate practice analysis studies are completed for each credential. The studies involve administering a large-scale survey to gather practice data from thousands of entry-level OTR and COTA certificants. Survey respondents are asked to rate the criticality of major domains, tasks, and knowledge, as well as the frequency of the domains and tasks required for occupational therapy practice. Additionally, respondents are provided an opportunity to identify critical elements of practice that are not captured within the survey. Results of the practice analysis studies lead to the formation of the certification examination blueprints: the NBCOT Validated Domains, Tasks, and Knowledge Statements for the OTR (NBCOT, 2012c) and the NBCOT Validated Domain, Task, and Knowledge Statements for the COTA (NBCOT, 2012d)The practice analysis results are also used to determine the percentage of items, or weighting, to be allocated to each of the domain areas of the examinations, as required by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA, 2014).

How are the exam items developed?

NBCOT annually recruits subject matter experts (SMEs) to develop new items for the examinations in accordance to the accreditation standards relating to the use of qualified personnel for examination development. Specifically, NCCA standards (2014) indicate SMEs must represent the appropriate demographics of the population to be certified and provide insight and guidance into examination processes.

SMEs are OTR and COTA certificants who represent the profession in terms of practice experiences, geographic regions, gender, and ethnicity. After questions or “items” for NBCOT examinations are developed, the items then undergo a rigorous review process by an additional committee of SMEs. This review is designed to: validate that the knowledge and tasks measured are compatible with the domain-level blueprint specifications; assess the relative criticality and frequency of each item to occupational therapy practice; and confirm that each item meets generally accepted fairness guidelines.

How is fairness considered?

NBCOT takes into account the fairness of its examinations during item development. NBCOT adheres to recognized item writing, test development, and review procedures to ensure readability, neutral language, and the universal accuracy of terms used in its items. Additional fairness criteria include, but are not limited to:

  • Editing items for issues of bias and stereotyping;
  • Coding items to the approved examination blueprint specifications;
  • Referencing items to approved and published resources in occupational therapy;
  • Selecting subject matter experts who are OTR and COTA practitioners and educators from diverse geographical areas, practice experiences, and cultures;
  • Field-testing items prior to their use as scored items on the exam.

During the examination process, fairness is addressed through standardized procedures regarding the registration process, accessibility issues, roles of proctors, and security of test materials and equipment. Fairness is addressed after the examination by consideration of confidentiality, accuracy of scoring, and timeliness of reporting the results.

What quality control measures are used?
NBCOT undertakes a series of quality control measures to maintain the fairness, integrity, reliability, and validity of each version of the examination. Content validity is preserved by constructing exams using the same blueprint across all versions. Additionally, a committee of subject matter experts validate each item on an exam using specific criticality, frequency, and importance criteria. Finally, the passing score on the certification examinations is determined through a rigorous statistical process that is widely used in the professional testing industry. This method, called the Modified Angoff method, is a way of determining the performance standard required for safe and competent occupational therapy practice, and then determining the number of examination questions candidates must answer correctly to demonstrate that they meet that performance standard. Once the passing standard is set, it cannot be changed. Future versions of the examination are then statistically equated to this standard to ensure that the passing standard remains constant over time, regardless of which version of the exam a candidate takes.

Exam Format

How are the COTA exams formatted?

The COTA examination consists of single-response multiple-choice items and six-option multi-select items.

The single-response multiple-choice item contains a stem and three or four possible response options. Of the response options presented, there is only one correct or best answer. Candidates earn a point if the correct response is selected.

The six-option multi-select items include a question stem followed by six possible response options. Of the options provided, three are correct responses and the other three are incorrect responses. The candidate must select all three correct response options in order to receive credit for a multi-select item. No partial credit is awarded for candidates who select only one or two of the correct options. Examples of multi-select items can be found here.

What is the layout of the computer-delivered COTA exam?

Candidates are allotted a period of four hours to complete the examination. The COTA examinations consist of 200 multiple-choice items based on the exam outline. Multiple-choice items include the single-response items in which the candidate selects the BEST option, as well as multi-select items in which the candidate must select the three BEST options out of six options. Multiple-choice and multi-select items are presented one at a time to the candidates. Some of the items may have a picture or chart included that contains information needed to answer the question. During the examination, candidates are able to highlight text that they deem important. A strikeout feature is also available to help candidates visually eliminate options. Candidates can mark items for review and change their item responses as testing time allows, or until they submit the examination for scoring. If time runs out before a candidate reviews the marked items, the selected response will be submitted for scoring. No credit will be given to a marked item that has no response option selected.

At the start of the examinations, candidates have the option of taking a tutorial about the functionality of the test screens. Time spent on the examination tutorials are not deducted from the four-hour test clock. Details on the features of the computer, as well as additional functionality of the exam, can be viewed by accessing the online tutorial.

How are the OTR exams formatted?

The OTR examination is divided into two distinct components: clinical simulation test (CST) problems and single-response multiple-choice items. Each CST problem consists of three main parts:

  1. Opening scene – This includes general background information about a practice-based situation that sets the scene for the entire CST problem.
  2. Sections – A series of four sections, each with a section header. Section headers provide information specific to the OT process that is addressed within the section.
  3. Response options and feedback – This includes a listing of potential options the OTR may consider in response to the question posed in the section header. The list of options in the CST problem consists of positive and negative options. A candidate must select either “Yes” or “No” for each option in a CST section before proceeding to the next section of a CST problem. Selecting “Yes” will result in feedback appearing to the right of the option. The feedback provides additional information related to the outcome of the “Yes” options, but does not give information on whether the candidate’s response was correct or incorrect. Feedback is not provided when “No” is selected.

At the option level, one point is awarded if “Yes” is selected for a positive option or “No” is selected for a negative option. Alternatively, no points are awarded if “No” is selected for a positive option or “Yes” is selected for a negative option.

In each section of a CST problem, candidates have the option of scrolling to previous screens within the same CST problem to view opening scenes, section information, responses they have selected, and feedback for positive selections; however, no changes to responses can be made. Candidates must complete each CST problem one at a time in the order presented.

Examples of the CST problems can be found by accessing the following links:

https://secure.nbcot.org/CSTDemo/?CSTID=1

https://secure.nbcot.org/CSTDemo/?CSTID=2

The multiple-choice item contains a stem and three or four possible response options. Of the response options presented, there is only one correct or best answer. Candidates earn a point if the correct response is selected.

What is the layout of the computer-delivered OTR exam?

Candidates taking the OTR exam are allotted four hours to complete the examination. The OTR examination includes two sections: a three problem clinical simulation test (CST) section and a 170 item single-response multiple-choice section.

The CST problems are presented one at a time. Candidates are required to select “Yes” or “No” for each option presented. Once a response is selected in a CST problem, it cannot be de-selected. After response choices have been selected for each option within a section, the candidate clicks “Next” to proceed to the subsequent section. Candidates are able to navigate back to see previous screens in the same CST problem, but response choices cannot be changed once the candidate has progressed to a new screen. Candidates must complete the CST section of the OTR examination before proceeding to the multiple-choice section. For additional information on these features, as well as functionality of the CST problems, view the online tutorial and access the sample CST problems here:

https://secure.nbcot.org/CSTDemo/?CSTID=1

https://secure.nbcot.org/CSTDemo/?CSTID=2

Once a candidate enters the multiple-choice section of the OTR examination, he or she is not able to reenter the CST section. In the OTR multiple-choice section, candidates can mark items for review and change their item responses as testing time allows, or until they submit the examination for scoring. If time runs out before a candidate reviews the marked items, the selected response will be submitted for scoring. No credit will be given to a marked item that has no response option selected.

During the entire examination, candidates are able to highlight text that they deem important. A strikeout feature is also available to help candidates visually eliminate possible options.

Each section of the OTR examination includes an optional tutorial. Time spent using a tutorial is not deducted from the four-hour testing time. Details on the features of the exam computer, as well as additional functionality of each section of the exam, can be viewed by accessing the online tutorial.

How are the exams delivered?
The OTR and COTA examinations are computer-delivered at testing centers located throughout the United States and internationally. The candidate can schedule to take the examination any day of the week during the business hours of the testing center the candidate selects. Scheduling instructions are provided in the candidate’s Authorization to Test Letter.

Are testing accommodations offered?
NBCOT provides reasonable and appropriate accommodations for qualified individuals with a disability who submit appropriate documentation. Additional information can be found on the Testing Accommodations page.

Scoring

How are the exams scored?
NBCOT certification examinations are criterion-referenced, meaning a candidate must obtain a score that is equal to or greater than the minimum passing score in order to pass the examination. Overall performance is reported on a standardized scale ranging from 300 to 600. A total scaled score of at least 450 is required to pass the OTR or COTA certification examination. It is important to note that the passing standard is based on candidate performance across the entire exam. Pass-fail decisions are based only on the total number of exam questions answered correctly, and there is no domain-level passing standard. Likewise, for the OTR examination, the passing standard is based on the responses provided across the entire exam. Separate scores are not calculated for the CST and multiple-choice sections.

What is a scaled score? 
A scaled score is a mathematical conversion of the number of items that a candidate correctly answered (raw score) that is transformed so that a consistent scale is used across all forms of the test. This transformation is similar to converting from pounds to kilograms or Celsius to Fahrenheit. The weight or temperature has not changed, only the format used to report the units.

Why use scaled scores?
Reporting scaled scores is standard practice on certification examinations and other standardized tests. The use of scaled scores allows for direct comparisons of scores across multiple test forms. Scaled scoring applies the same passing standard to all test forms ensuring that the passing standard remains constant over time, regardless of which version of the exam a candidate takes.

Why are percentages or norm-referenced scores not used?

Percent correct and number of correct scores are simply other ways of reporting raw scores and therefore, do not resolve the issue of comparability of scores across different versions of the exam. Although each version of the examination tests the same domains, tasks, and knowledge, each form contains a different set of test items, which means that one or more questions on one test form may vary in difficulty than the questions appearing on another test form. Simply using a raw score does not account for this difference.

Norm-referenced scoring is used to indicate performance differences among test takers, not to determine if a candidate has acquired specific knowledge. Best test practices involve the use of scaled scoring to address direct comparison of scores across multiple versions of the examination, not to other candidates’ performance.

How is the pass point determined?
The NBCOT certification examinations are criterion-referenced, meaning a candidate’s performance is compared to a pre-determined minimum standard. In keeping with accreditation standards, NBCOT completes standard setting studies to establish the passing standard for the OTR and COTA examinations. The methodology used for the most recent standard setting studies, the modified Angoff methodology, requires panels of subject matter experts to identify the minimum level of competency required to pass the examinations (Cizek, 2012).

What scoring information is provided?

Candidates who pass the examination receive a performance feedback report that includes a congratulatory letter and the candidate’s earned exam score. NBCOT also provides performance feedback to those candidates who do not achieve the passing standard on the examination. This performance feedback report includes the candidate’s score, as well as the average score of new graduates who recently passed the examination. The report also includes a domain-level performance chart to help a candidate identify areas of relative strength and weakness and additional information regarding how individual domain scores can be used. Finally, a list of Frequently Asked Questions is presented to address queries regarding the determination of the passing score, use of scaled scores, candidate performance comparisons, score reporting, exam preparation, and exam content.

Sample OTR performance feedback report for candidate with failing score

Sample COTA performance feedback report for candidate with failing score

Why are scores not provided immediately?
Calibration of the test items using Item Response Theory statistics is only one of the quality control procedures NBCOT uses as part of its score verification procedures. Additional quality control measures regarding test administration processes and procedures take place after administration of an examination and prior to sending an official feedback report in order to ensure candidates receive accurate information about their final scores.

Test Metrics

Why are field-test (non-scored) items used?

Each NBCOT exam includes a pre-selected number of field-test items. Although these items are not considered when determining candidates’ scores, performance data is collected and analyzed for each field-test item. The statistical analysis of the field-test items is an important quality control measure NBCOT uses to preserve the reliability and validity of the examinations. Candidates are not able to distinguish between the scored and non-scored items.

Once a sufficient number of responses are collected on a field-test item, the item statistics are reviewed based on pre-determined psychometric measures. Field-test items meeting these metrics are entered into the bank of items that can be used as scored items on subsequent exams. Item-level statistics falling below these metrics for field-test items are flagged for additional review and revision before undergoing further levels of field-testing.

What is meant by item-level statistics?
NBCOT uses Item Response Theory (IRT) methodology to analyze and calibrate examination items and to pre-equate test forms. IRT statistics provide test developers with valuable information on the psychometric properties of each item in the item bank. Access to this information during test construction facilitates the selection of appropriate items for the new test forms. NBCOT evaluates the following statistics against pre-determined metrics: item difficulty, discriminating power, distractor effectiveness, test reliability, and misfit measures.

Are there other benefits to using IRT?
In addition to enhancing the reliability and validity of the exams, the advantage of building pre-equated test forms using IRT include a significant reduction in the waiting period between the initial administration of a new form and the release of feedback performance reports. Because item analysis, verification of answer keys, and test equating are completed before new forms are administered, feedback performance reports can be issued with minimal delay.

References

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990).

Cizek, G. (2012). Setting performance standards: Foundations, methods, and innovations (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1978). The Office of Personnel Management, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Labor (1979). Uniform guidelines on employee selection procedures. 41 CFR Part 603 (1978).

NBCOT. (2012a). Executive summary for the practice analysis of the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant COTA®. Retrieved from http://www.nbcot.org

NBCOT. (2012b). Executive summary for the practice analysis of the Occupational Therapist Registered OTR®. Retrieved from http://www.nbcot.org

NBCOT. (2012c). Validated domain, task, & knowledge statements for the Occupational Therapist Registered OTR®. Retrieved from http://www.nbcot.org

NBCOT. (2012d). Validated domain, task, & knowledge statements for the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant COTA®. Retrieved from http://www.nbcot.org

National Commission for Certifying Agencies. (2014). The NCCA’s standards for the accreditation of certification programs. Institute for Credentialing Excellence.

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