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National certification: evidence of a professional school counselor?

National certification and the professionalism of school counselors are becoming more salient, particularly as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act. Archival data were used to examine the relationship between preparation at programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and national certification for school counselors. Significantly more individuals who obtained the National Certified Counselor credential were graduates of CACREP-accredited programs while the majority of school counselors who obtained the National Certified School Counselor credential were graduates of non-accredited programs. Implications for school counselors are examined.


Certification: The process by which an agency, government, or association officially grants recognition to an individual for having met certain professional qualifications that have been developed by the profession. Certification in counseling is voluntary at the national level ... but is mandatory for some school counselor positions at the state level. (Gladding, 2001, p. 22)

Ten years ago, Sweeney (1995) wrote about the different types of certification available to professional counselors. Specifically relevant for professional school counselors is his distinction between governmental and nongovernmental certification. State school counselor certification is an example of governmental certification. In order to be hired as a school counselor, an individual must obtain certification from the state in which he or she hopes to become employed in the same manner in which a teacher would seek certification. Some states use the term school counseling license while others use the term certification, credentials, or endorsement when referring to their regulated process for credentialing school personnel. For consistency in this manuscript, state certification will be used in reference to governmental certification, licensure, credentialing, or endorsement in school counseling.

Sweeney (1995) indicated that criteria for state school counselor certification are based on what the state believes to be important, at times without consideration of recommendations from professional counseling organizations. These criteria are determined by individual states, and wide variation in requirements exists. For example, while a master's degree in guidance and counseling is required for school counselor certification in 42 states, some (e.g., New York) do not require a master's degree (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2005b). The number of required graduate credit hours for state certification ranges from 18 to 48, and some states require supplemental hours of graduate work in specific content areas such as disabilities and technology (Lum, 2004).

In terms of experience, 21 states require previous counseling or teaching experience, and 8 states require a teaching license (e.g., Kentucky, Rhode Island). Further, 22 states require applicants to pass one or more standardized exams (e.g., School Guidance and Counseling subject area PRAXIS exam; Educational Testing Service, 2005), and most (45) require criminal background checks (Lum, 2004). Even when states have similar certification criteria, reciprocity is not always guaranteed. Finally, many states also offer provisional or temporary certification, and a burgeoning number of states are creating alternative paths to certification (Lure). The differences appear to serve as indicators of the arbitrary nature of many state school counselor certification requirements. According to Bradley (1995), the wide variance in state requirements is both puzzling and detrimental to how school counselors can communicate a consistent identity.

School counselor state certification requirements for continuing education also vary by state (ASCA, 2005b). Those requirements range from the creation and implementation of professional development plans that are evaluated by supervisors to a few credit hours of continuing education. Nevertheless, most states appear to require some sort of professional development for renewal of the state school counseling certificate. Continuing education has been identified as a benefit of certification in that it assists counselors in updating their knowledge and skills (Forrest & Stone, 1991). Although many school counselors voluntarily choose to attend conferences, workshops, and other professional development opportunities, the desire to maintain their certification might provide extra incentive to seek those types of educational opportunities.

While mandatory (in relation to employment) and diverse or inconsistent (in relation to requirements) are descriptors associated with state certification, voluntary and consistent would more accurately describe national certification (national certification will be used in reference to nongovernmental certification). Although some states require continuing education, Sweeney (1995) emphasized that state certification is often created to protect the public rather than promote the professionalism of individuals who possess the credential. Through uniform criteria reflecting specific skills and knowledge, national certification can be used to promote a consistent identity within the profession (based on a common set of knowledge and requirements). It also can provide professional school counselors a means of demonstrating and communicating competence to key stakeholders (e.g., administrators, parents).

The most established and probably most familiar national counseling certification is the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential offered through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). NBCC was established in 1983 specifically for an umbrella certification for counseling (Bradley, 1995), and in 1991 NBCC awarded the first voluntary school counseling specialty credential, the National Certified School Counselor (NCSC; ASCA, 2005c). In order to obtain that credential, applicants had to possess the NCC (or concurrently apply for the NCC) as well as provide documentation of supervised school counseling experience and letters of recommendation and endorsement. Passing the National Counselor Examination (NCE) is required in order to obtain the NCC. As of 2003, however, a specialty examination (the National Certified School Counselor Examination; NCSCE) became an additional requirement for obtaining the NCSC. To maintain an NCC or NCSC, individuals are required to complete continuing education and can be audited for this on a random basis. Finally, while most states do not require fees beyond an initial application fee for state school counselor certification, NBCC charges either annual fees or renewal fees, and its initial application fees tend to be much higher than initial fees for state certification (ASCA, 2005c).

Sweeney (1995) proposed that possession of voluntary certifications (such as the NCSC) "may suggest a level of professional commitment beyond that required of those who are obligated to seek legislatively defined credentialing" (p. 121). Others (e.g., Borders & Benshoff, 1992; VanZandt, 1990) also have identified the pursuit of counseling credentials as evidence of professionalism. Paisley and Borders (1995) suggested that national certification is a significant professional statement for school counselors, one that meets national (rather than state) standards and more formally recognizes the responsibilities and roles of school counselors.

Recent trends in school counseling support the need for professionalism and encourage school counselors to exert greater efforts to demonstrate their professionalism. Through the ASCA National Model[R], the American School Counselor Association (2005a) has engaged in efforts to help school counselors establish a unified voice, define their roles, and self-advocate. Additionally, two national organizations (NBCC and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards [NBPTS]) now offer school counseling specialty credentials. By pursuing national credentials, school counselors not only indicate their commitment to professionalism, as suggested above, but they also make clear statements about their professional identity. Given the variation that exists in school counselor training and state certification, as discussed previously, pursuing national certification seems an important action for school counselors who wish to clearly communicate their knowledge, training, and professional identity.

If the pursuit and successful attainment of voluntary credentials in school counseling is a sign of professionalism, what factors might influence or be connected with individuals seeking national credentials? Hoyt (1991) argued that school counselors have little reason to pursue voluntary credentials such as the NCC unless they intend to work in private practice or community settings. In fact, in 1995, Bradley found that only 5% of ASCA members were certified by NBCC. Although professional aspirations may be influential, we hypothesize that another factor that leads school counselors to pursue national certification might be the type or quality of preparation that they receive.

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) "has unique importance for fostering the professional competence of school counselors" (Trevisan, 2000, p. 83). CACREP standards "represent the most rigorous regulating guidelines for school counseling preparation programs" (Paisley & Borders, 1995, p. 151). In addition, CACREP specifically promotes the discussion of professional certification during counselor preparation and encourages counselor educators to possess relevant counseling credentials such as the NCC (CACREP, 2001). In fact, Milsom and Akos (2005) found that significantly more counselor educators from CACREP-accredited programs held the NCC than did counselor educators from non-accredited programs.


Researchers (e.g., Hollis, 1998; Schmidt, 1999) have recommended examining the relationship between CACREP accreditation and other variables associated with counselor preparation. Most of the existing research examining this relationship has utilized subjective measures such as opinions and perceptions. Tang et al. (2004) specifically identified the importance of future studies involving objective data such as NCE scores. The current research study sought to examine the relationship between professional certification (i.e., NCC and NCSC) and CACREP accreditation by comparing performance and pass rates of graduate students and school counselors from CACREP-accredited and non-accredited programs. Additionally, given the increased focus on school counselor professional identity and professionalism, we also wanted to gather basic descriptive data related to school counseling specialty credentials.


Sampling and Data Collection

Archival data collection included national certification examination data from 1994 to 2003. Pursuit of the NCC credential and performance on the NCE served as the first two indicators. More specifically, the number of individuals who sat for the NCE as graduate students during the years 1995-2003 was examined as were their mean scores and pass rates on the examination. NBCC provided these data, which were generated from the Graduate Student Administration of the NCE (GSA-NCE). NBCC (2005c) indicated that GSA-NCE results reflect both currently enrolled graduate students and individuals who completed their degree within one semester before or after the exam date. The GSA-NCE can be administered at CACREP-accredited institutions as well as non-accredited institutions that have qualified for Board Eligible status. Students successfully completing the exam at a Board Eligible site have 3 years after passing the NCE to obtain 3,000 hours of supervised counseling experience before they may use the NCC credential without the descriptor Board Eligible (NBCC, 2005a).

The final two indicators were pursuit of and success in obtaining the NCSC credential. From 1994 to 2003, in order to obtain the NCSC credential, applicants were required to obtain their NCC (either prior to or concurrent with), document 3 years of school counseling experience, and submit the required supervision and endorsement paperwork (NBCC, 2005b).

Data Analysis

Comparisons were made between graduate students and school counselors affiliated with CACREP-accredited and non-accredited programs. Chi-square analyses, t tests, and descriptive statistics were used to examine potential differences among individuals in regards to the certifications.


From 1995 to 2003, a total of 15,392 graduate students from CACREP-accredited programs and 3,910 students from non-accredited programs took the NCE. A t test calculated to examine differences in mean scores on the NCE between graduate students from CACREP-accredited and non-accredited programs revealed significant differences at p < .001 (see Table 1). Students from CACREP-accredited programs scored significantly higher on the exam. The effect size of 0.28 indicates that a small to moderate amount of variance in NCE scores can be attributed to attending an accredited program. Additionally, a chi-square analysis was calculated to examine the number of individuals who passed the NCE and who failed it (see Table 2). Significant differences were found at the p < .001 level and with a small effect size of 0.10. Graduate students from CACREP-accredited programs passed the NCE at higher rates (86%) than did graduate students from non-accredited programs (77%).

In relation to the NCSC, a total of 2,277 individuals pursued that credential between 1994 and 2003. Of those, 305 graduated from CACREP-accredited programs and 1,972 from non-accredited programs. A total of 268 CACREP graduates (88%) obtained the credential while a total of 1,034 graduates from non-accredited programs (52%) obtained the credential. While graduates of CACREP-accredited programs constituted 13% of all applicants, 21% of all successful applicants graduated from CACREP-accredited programs. A chi-square analysis was calculated to examine the NCSC data, and significance was found at p < .001 ([chi square] [1, n = 2,277] = 135.461), with significantly more individuals from CACREP-accredited programs successfully obtaining the NCSC credential. A small effect size (0.24) was found.


Although the results of this study did not replicate the large effect size found in previous investigations examining the relationship between CACREP and NCE scores (Scott, 2001), it does appear that there is a relationship between completion of a CACREP-accredited program and performance on the NCE. Results from this study also suggest that CACREP graduates perform better on and are more likely to pass the NCE than individuals from non-accredited programs. Although no formal comparison was made, it is noteworthy that nearly four times as many graduate students from CACREP-accredited programs took the NCE as compared to students from non-accredited programs. Out of the approximately 600 counselor education programs throughout the United States (M. Olds, NBCC, personal communication, February 23, 2006), 198 are currently accredited by CACREP (2005). Thus, since only approximately one third of all counselor education programs are accredited by CACREP, these results are surprising. Furthermore, although CACREP-accredited programs are automatically eligible to serve as examination sites, any graduate program in counselor education can apply for Board Eligible status, which also would grant them that same opportunity.

In relation to our results, it is also noteworthy that nearly six times as many individuals from non-accredited programs pursued the NCSC credential. Although CACREP graduates attained the NCSC at significantly higher rates (88% vs. 52%), it is unclear what factors lead school counselors to pursue, but not complete and earn, the NCSC. NBCC did not require the NCSCE during our sampling frame, so NCE scores were one factor necessary to attain the NCSC. It seems likely that some individuals who were not successful in their pursuit of the NCSC had incomplete applications or did not possess the requisite supervised experience. Further research would help to identify specific reasons that many school counselors did not successfully pursue the NCSC.

In 1995, Pate indicated that only 15% of NCCs elected to pursue specialty certifications. In this study the 2,277 individuals who applied for the NCSC represented nearly 9% of applicants for the NCC during the same time frame. Interestingly, they also represent only slightly more than 2% of the estimated 100,000 school counselors throughout the United States (K. Rakestraw, personal communication, February 23, 2006). With such a small percentage of school counselors pursuing the NCSC credential, perhaps the benefits of national certification need to be clarified.

Overall the results suggest somewhat weak relationships between attendance at a CACREP-accredited program and the pursuit of voluntary certification and performance on examinations required for those certifications. Conclusions about the relationship between enrollment in specific types of school counselor preparation programs and national certification also should be made cautiously due to several limitations in the study. First, the authors had no way to parcel out school counselors from all applicants taking the NCE. Given similar NCSC results (i.e., individuals from CACREP-accredited programs were more successful on both the NCE and the NCSC), however, it seems reasonable to conclude that school counselors from CACREP-accredited programs scored higher on and passed the NCE at higher rates than individuals from non-accredited programs.

Given the small effect sizes associated with NCE results and the NCSC credential, future research should be conducted to further examine CACREP's relationship with these measures. Researchers also may consider examining CACREP's relationship with additional standardized measures specific to school counselors (e.g., the NCSCE, PRAXIS school counseling exam, other state licensure exams) or other objective measures (e.g., school counselor performance, student outcomes). Further, it seems important to investigate factors that motivate and/ or discourage an individual to pursue certain voluntary credentials (and specifically the specialty credentials) and whether there is a relationship between the possession of counseling credentials and professional competence or effectiveness.


Although there are many routes to the subjective notion of professionalism, national certification is a prominent one. National certification also provides an example of the dynamic nature of school counseling. In 2002, the NBPTS (2006) created an alternative route for school counselors for national certification. While this certification has been debated in counseling circles due to its origin from a teacher organization, it has gained popularity in several locations. For example, in North Carolina the state will pay the substantial application fee and provide a salary supplement to school counselors who obtain national certification through NBPTS but not to those who pursue certification through NBCC. Similar benefits for the NCSC also have occurred in other states (e.g., Mississippi). Other distinctions between these two types of national certification have been highlighted elsewhere (ASCA, 2005c), although a master's degree in counseling is one of the major differences. NBCC requires that applicants possess a "minimum of a master's degree in counseling with coursework in school counseling" (NBCC, 2005b, p. 1), while NBPTS only requires that applicants possess state certification (NBPTS).

Professionalism provides an important contribution to school counselor practice. For example, school counselors with national credentials might be perceived as more professional or competent and therefore become more highly valued (e.g., salary increases). Additionally, assuming that their national credentials serve as a reflection of competence and expertise, school counselors might be more likely to gain administrative support for implementing a comprehensive school counseling program (e.g., ASCA National Model). Data from school counselors who currently possess specialty credentials would help researchers more clearly identify any potential benefits. In the meantime, school counselors can work with their local administrators and with state officials to obtain both support and recognition for pursuing specialty credentials. In addition to financial support, school counselors might request administrator assistance in locating individuals to provide the requisite supervision of their counseling as well as flexible schedules that would allow them opportunities to participate in relevant continuing education activities.

The debate about national certification, especially in the larger context of school counselor education, is also one about identity. Previous debates about the distribution of counselors into specialty areas (Myers, 1992) and the muddling of professional identity (Crespi, 1994) have now morphed within school counseling into debate about an educator or counselor identity. Due to the significance of national certification on professional school counselor identity, ASCA should provide guidance to which of the two national certifications is "best" for professional school counselors and indicate why the certification may be useful. Pate (1995) made this same suggestion more than 10 years ago for the American Counseling Association and counselor certification. While endorsing one certification over another may engage deep political factors, doing so seems necessary to guide school counselors to a clear professional identity.


The findings indicate there is a positive relationship between preparation at a CACREP-accredited institution and (a) knowledge competency, (b) pursuit of the NCC, and (c) successful completion of the NCSC. Attending a CACREP-accredited school counseling preparation program ensures the provision of information and modeling around professionalism. Non-CACREP-accredited institutions may provide similar information and modeling, but even if they do not, graduates of school counseling programs and current practitioners can pursue national certification and other modes of professionalism to ensure current and competent practice. At the same time, school counselors might consider the personal and professional benefits of national certification, wait for guidance from ASCA, and consider that the possession of a particular type of credential might actually serve as a reflection of their professional identity (i.e., counselor versus educator). Finally, school counselors are encouraged to identify barriers that might dissuade them from pursuing national certification and work at local, state, and national levels to impact policy. As school counselors are increasingly held accountable (e.g., for student outcomes, for professional growth), proactive efforts to demonstrate their professionalism are important.


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Amy Milsom is an assistant professor with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail: asmilsom@ Patrick Akos is an assistant professor with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Table 1. Differences in GSA-NCE Scores for Individuals Graduating
from CACREP-Accredited and Non-Accredited Programs


 n M SD n M SD

15,392 116.57 15.38 3,910 112.25 16.85

 df t Size

19,300 15.395 0.28

Note. N = 19,302.

Table 2. Number of Individuals from CACREP-Accredited and
Non-Accredited Programs Who Passed and Failed the GSA-NCE
Between 1995 and 2003

 (N = 15,392) (N = 3,910)

 Pass Fail Pass Fail [chi square] Effect
 (1) Size

13,306 2,086 3,025 885 197.469 0.10

Note. N = 19,302.
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Author:Akos, Patrick
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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