The Life and Times of the National School Psychology Certification System
By Eric Rossen & Barbara Bole Williams
Next January (2014) will mark the 25th anniversary of the formal adoption of the National School Psychology Certification System (NSPCS) by NASP leadership. The efforts that occurred in the late 1980s to develop this national credential have had an enormous impact on the profession—a trend that will likely continue given the relationship among the NCSP credential and NASP's professional standards, state credentialing standards, and district-level hiring practices and incentives.
The Birth of the NSPCS and the NCSP Credential
The timing of the NSPCS and the NCSP resulted from several factors occurring within a fairly short period in the 1980s—namely (a) the push for more entry level competency exams among educators; (b) the revision of the NASP credentialing standards approved in 1985, which provided an integrated set of standards for preparation, credentialing, and practice; and (c) the NASP process of approving graduate preparation programs through its relationship with the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) beginning in 1987. The reader is referred to Batsche and Curtis (2003) for a comprehensive history.
Rise in entry level competency exams. In response to calls for school reform, the early- to mid-1980s saw an increasing number of state education agencies (SEA) imposing comprehensive competency exams for school-based professionals as a requisite for certification. Several states had begun designing their own exams for school psychologists, including a cluster of five states that had engaged in a partnership with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for this purpose. However, the design and development of these exams for school psychologists appeared fragmented, isolated, and inconsistent across states. In response, between 1986 and 1987, NASP began formal discussions with ETS about the development of a national exam for school psychology (a proposal which coincidentally was rejected almost a decade earlier because of the high costs and less evident market for a national exam at the time). By July 1988, the first national administration of the school psychology exam was given as part of the field testing process. By the spring of 1989, the NSPCS identified a passing score, and the first version of the Praxis II School Psychology Exam was born.
The first revision of the NASP standards. Prior to NASP developing the NSPCS, allied professional organizations such as the American Speech and Hearing Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the American Counseling Association all had developed national credentialing systems. NASP, of course, had a set of national standards first developed and approved in the late 1970s, although there was no mechanism to formally acknowledge or incentivize those that met the standards. With the first full revision and integration of the national standards approved in 1984/1985 (preparation, credentialing, ethics, and practice), the NSPCS provided a way to further support and roll out the standards for the profession. It also provided a reasonable benchmark for states to adopt for entry-level requirements given the inconsistent credentialing standards across states at the time. In fact, Batsche and Curtis (2003) noted that up to 17 different standards for certifying and licensing school psychologists existed across the country.
NASP relationship with NCATE for program approval. NCATE maintains the authority to accredit units (i.e., colleges, schools, or departments of education) through the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. NCATE also has the authority to provide national recognition for programs within these accredited units if they meet the standards of NCATE's specialized professional associations (SPA). NASP is a recognized SPA by NCATE; therefore, NASP's standards are recognized by NCATE, and NASP has the authority to approve programs that meet those standards. While NCATE first began listing school psychology programs and recognizing school psychology as a category in the 1960s, and NASP became an affiliate member of NCATE in the 1970s, NCATE first began sanctioning the review of school psychology programs in 1987 (See Prus & Strein, 2011).
The availability of a recognized approval process for programs to ensure alignment with NASP's standards allowed for a streamlined method for graduates of those programs to meet a part of the NCSP criteria, with the assumption that they all had met NASP's graduate preparation standards.
The Toddler Years of the NSPCS
Much like what we would expect in the first years of our children's lives, the NSPCS grew and developed by leaps and bounds in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Within the first 18 months, 14,517 Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credentials were issued by the NSPCS (Batsche & Curtis, 2003), a number that actually exceeds our current number of active NCSPs as of the writing of this article. Furthermore, an additional 700 applications at the time were pending. Applications arrived from every state and various foreign countries. The NSPCS issued cards and certificates to all individuals qualifying for the NCSP credential and developed a directory of NCSPs.
At the time, the NSPCS agreed to allow individuals to receive the NCSP under a grandparenting clause provided that they maintained an active credential from an SEA and simply took the national school psychology exam. They did not need to pass the exam, although the massive numbers of test-takers allowed for a robust field-testing and norming process. Individuals utilizing the grandfather clause then had 3 years to meet the degree-level requirements (as described in the NASP training standards at the time) of 48 graduate semester hours in school psychology or the equivalent in professional development hours, and a full year internship (or 2 years of experience as a credentialed school psychologist).
The Adolescent and Young Adult Years
Throughout the 1990s, the NCSP became more institutionalized. With the proliferation of NASP-approved programs came more graduates prepared to apply for the NCSP (e.g., as of December 31, 1997, approximately 68% of all school psychology programs had NASP approval; Thomas, 1998). Furthermore, as the national standards were once again revised, the criteria to earn the NCSP became more rigorous (e.g., in 1994 the NASP standards for graduate preparation increased the required graduate semester hours from 48 to 54, exclusive of internship). Renewal of the NCSP every 3 years also required the accrual of continuing professional development, a criterion that did not exist for the majority of SEA credentials. This new requirement set a new expectation and ethical obligation for school psychologists to continuously pursue professional growth.
Interestingly, despite the onslaught of applications for the NCSP, the mid- to late- 1990s saw a marked decrease in total NCSPs. To illustrate, in a study that included a small sample of NASP members in 1992, approximately 95% indicated that they held the NCSP (Stinnett, Havey, & Oehler-Stinnett, 1994); however, in a survey completed in 1995 among a sample of nearly 2,000 NASP members, only 63.5% self-identified as holding an active NCSP (Curtis, Hunley, Walker, & Baker, 1999). One might suspect that this drop-off occurred as the result of a large number of initially grandfathered NCSPs not fulfilling the graduate preparation or continuing professional development (CPD) requirements, or simply deciding not to renew.
2004: The Year of the NCSP and the NCSP Promotion Task Force
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the NCSP credential, NASP declared 2004 to be the Year of the NCSP. In preparation for the celebration, NASP formed the NCSP Promotion Task Force, whose charge was to increase the visibility of the credential, pursue avenues to enhance its value, and promote the NCSP as a valuable goal for school psychologists (Williams, Epifanio, & Walpole, 2007). Prior to the NCSP Promotion Task Force's formation, 8,300 school psychologists held the NCSP. Following a variety of promotional and targeted activities, by 2007, NCSPs numbered 10,421 active and 725 retired.
By 2007, a number of states and individual districts across the country offered financial incentives to holders of the NCSP credential. To better capture an accurate accounting of the financial and other benefits of the NCSP, the NSPCB initiated an electronic survey of NCSP holders in February and March, 2007. The survey results indicated that the monetary benefits offered to the NCSPs were highly variable, ranging from a reported $450 to $10,000 per year provided by the individual's state, district, or employer. Some respondents reported that the NCSP met requirements for renewal of their state certification or exempted them from the state-level certification exam.
The total number of active NCSPs has yet to reach over 13,000 since the initial boom between 1989 and 1990. Nevertheless, the number of active NCSPs has seen a steady rise from the early 2000s to the present, with approximately 12,700 active NCSPs as of the writing of this article.
As the NSPCS and the NCSP continue to evolve, so do the policies that govern its maintenance. Notably, the NSPCS has instituted several new policies and initiatives in recent years.
Changes to renewal requirements. NCSP holders must renew the credential every 3 years, which also means documenting 75 hours of CPD. As noted by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), “mandatory CPD will help create consistency in professional standards … contributes to public protection … and makes transparent a jurisdictional commitment to ensuring the highest ethical responsibilities responsibilities for its licensees.” (ASPPB, 2012, p. 9). The CPD could come from a variety of sources (e.g., workshops, leadership activities, publishing), although NCSPs are prompted to consider the following four questions prior to claiming CPD:
- Did the activity enhance or upgrade my professional skills or add to my knowledge base?
- Was the activity relevant to the professional practice of school psychology?
- Did the activity fit into my personal plan for continuing professional development?
- Did the activity go beyond the ordinary aspects of my employment?
Between 2009 and 2010, the NSPCS began enforcing the requirement to obtain 3 of the 75 hours in ethics or the legal regulation of school psychology, and 10 of the 75 hours from NASP- or APA-approved providers of CPD. These added requirements are aligned with the ASPPB guidelines for CPD (ASPPB, 2012), and are consistent with the requirements of other allied professionals. Specifically, requiring CPD from approved providers assists professionals in accessing high quality content that has met a set of standards as agreed upon by peer review. Allowing these criteria to be met through NASP- or APA-approved providers was intended to make such CPD more accessible, although it also set the stage for the development of NASP's Approved Provider System.
Approved Provider System. In an effort to create a system of accountability for providers of professional development to school psychologists, and also to create more opportunities and options for school psychologists to obtain high quality CPD, the NASP Approved Provider System was developed in 2005. This also helped promote NASP's standards and recognize other organizations that adopted CPD guidelines. To date, 47 state associations maintain status as NASP-approved providers of CPD, along with 11 school districts and 28 other affiliated commercial and nonprofit organizations. In addition, all NASP-approved graduate preparation programs are considered de facto NASP-approved providers of CPD. In September 2011, NASP also opened the Online Learning Center, which offers approved CPD delivered exclusively online, which further expanded the options for NCSPs to meet the CPD requirement and pursue professional growth.
Special renewal offer. The NCSP credential requires renewal every 3 years. After 3 years, the NCSP credential expires, and the individual can no longer identify him- or herself as an active NCSP. However, the individual has 3 years from that expiration date to renew by meeting the CPD requirements and paying a nominal, prorated late fee in addition to the typical renewal fee. If the individual does not renew following those 3 years, which indicates 6 years from the initial or most recent renewal, the individual can no longer renew the NCSP, and instead must reapply as a new NCSP candidate.
The above policy created challenges for some school psychologists who expressed a desire to reactivate their NCSPs after having let their NCSP credentials lapse. Given that the benefits and incentives of holding the NCSP credential have increased over time, many school psychologists have found that they wish they had maintained it.
In an effort to reengage those individuals, NASP offered its first Special Renewal Opportunity (SRO) between April, 2005 and September, 2006 for those who had let their NCSP expire beyond the 3 years. A special caveat was included in the first Special Renewal Opportunity such that those who became an NCSP under the grandfather clause had to have renewed at least once to qualify. This offered those who previously held the NCSP the opportunity to renew without having to reapply or retake the national exam. The same offer was provided again between April, 2011 and October, 2012. Approximately 55 individuals took advantage of the most recent SRO.
Current State of the NCSP
The NSPCS maintains numerous goals and purposes; namely, the development of a national standard for graduate preparation and practice, encouragement of continuing professional growth, and fostering cooperation among the organizations and agencies that certify or license school psychologists.
State recognition of the NCSP. States hold the responsibility for setting the guidelines for certification and licensure. Thus, without the advocacy efforts of NASP, the NCSP would potentially lack presence among state certification and licensing laws. To date, 31 states recognize or acknowledge the NCSP as partially or fully meeting the credentialing requirements in that state. This indicates considerable growth over the last 15 years, as only 14 states recognized the NCSP as a route to the state credential in 1998 (Curtis, Hunley, & Prus, 1998). NASP continues to work cooperatively with states to advocate for the adoption of its standards for graduate preparation and credentialing as the benchmark for certification and licensure. Doing so would create a more consistent credentialing process, allow for more ease when professionals have to move across states, and ensure a workforce that has met a set of national standards.
Data trends. As of the writing of this article, approximately 12,700 individuals maintain an active NCSP credential, with approximately two thirds of those NCSPs maintaining active NASP membership. An additional 1,050 individuals maintain the Retired NCSP status—a lifetime credential for those who have ceased remunerative school psychology practice. This marks a steady increase in the total number of NCSPs within the last 10 to 15 years.
Approximately 2,600 school psychology interns were identified during the 2011– 2012 academic year through a rigorous effort by the NASP Graduate Educator Workgroup. However, total NCSP applications reflect that fewer than half of students apply for the NCSP after graduation. This is particularly surprising given that students from NASP-approved programs need only submit the application and pass the Praxis II School Psychology exam in order to receive the credential.
As noted earlier, as of December 31, 1997, 149 of the 218 school psychology programs maintained NASP approval. As of December, 2011, 220 of the 306 existing programs (72%) maintained NASP approval. The continually increasing availability of NASP-approved programs may promote a continued increase in the number of NCSP-eligible school psychologists.
Benefits of the NCSP. Potentially, some students and practitioners remain unaware of the various benefits the NCSP credential has to offer, leading to low application rates. First, as mentioned earlier, 31 states acknowledge or recognize the NCSP as fulfilling a component of the entry-level state certification or licensure. A small number of states actually require it. Furthermore, several states that do not explicitly mention recognition of the NCSP have adopted the identical requirements of the NCSP. Therefore, holding and maintaining an NCSP, or at least meeting the standards for the NCSP, can support transitions across most states. The NCSP also yields job incentives for many. Some school districts, and a few states, offer a yearly stipend to those holding an active NCSP. School psychologists have reported that these stipends are more frequently removed than added since the recession, although NASP has tools available to help school psychologists advocate for NCSP parity (http://www.nasponline.org/advocacy/NCSPstate initiatives.aspx). The NCSP also indicates that a professional has met the national standards for graduate preparation and practice, and therefore can be viewed favorably by potential employers.
Finally, the NCSP offers professional recognition among colleagues, students, and families. It indicates to others that the individual has met a set of standards and maintains the responsibility for continued professional growth and development.
Future of the NCSP
As is evident from this article, the advocacy surrounding the NASP standards and the NCSP credential in particular has led to substantial growth and improvement. Furthermore, there is no sign of this trend abating, as the NSPCS continues to strive for improvement while working collaboratively with states and other national entities to increase awareness and acknowledgement. Ideally, all school psychologists will see the value in pursuing and maintaining the credential. Such a movement could support the notion that all school psychologists meet and abide by a national standard for graduate preparation, practice, ethics, and professional growth—a notion that would be supportive of each individual professional and the field as a whole.
Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. (2012). ASPPB guidelines for continuing professional development. Retrieved from http://www.asppb.net/files/public/ASPPB%20Guidelines%20for%20Continuing%20Professional%20Development%202012.pdf
Batsche, G. M., & Curtis, M. J. (2003). The creation of the National School Psychology Certification System. Communiqué, 32(4), 6–8.
Curtis, M. J., Hunley, S. A., & Prus, J. R. (1998). Credentialing requirements for school psychologists. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Curtis, M. J., Hunley, S. A., Walker, K. J., & Baker, A. C. (1999). Demographic characteristics and professional practices in school psychology School Psychology Review, 28, 104–116.
Prus, J. S., & Strein, W. (2011). Issues and trends in the accreditation of school psychology programs in the United States. Psychology in the Schools, 48, 887–900.
Stinnett, T. A., Havey, J. M., & Ochler-Stinnett, J. (1994). Current test usage by practicing school psychologists: A national survey. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 12, 331–350.
Thomas, A. (1998). Directory of school psychology graduate programs. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
Williams, B. B., Epifanio, F. J., & Walpole, M. (2007). Survey of school psychologists suggests strategies to advocate for financial incentives. Communiqué, 36(3), 31–32.
Eric Rossen, PhD, NCSP, is NASP Director, Professional Development and Standards. Barbara Bole Williams, PhD, NCSP, is a professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, and chair of the National School Psychology Certification Board.