Many professions use licensing systems to select individuals into their fields and to prevent those considered incompetent from practicing. As defined in 1971 by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, licensure is “the process by which an agency of government grants permission to persons to engage in a given profession or occupation by certifying that those licensed have attained the minimal degree of competency necessary to ensure that the public health, safety, and welfare will be reasonably well protected” (p. 7). Licensure is a state function. States regulate more than 500 professions, from real estate appraisers to electricians to architects. Licensure requirements for a given profession may vary across states, and states may vary in the professions they regulate.
Professions generally promote quality practice in three ways: through professional accreditation of preparation programs, through state licensing of applicants to the profession, and through certification of practitioners. Professions use accreditation to examine their preparation programs and to attempt to ensure that they provide high-quality instruction and practice opportunities. Licensing serves as a gateway to the profession, allowing only those who have met minimum standards of competence to practice. For some professions, certification is granted to those who demonstrate exemplary knowledge and skill. For example, in the medical profession, certification generally is professional recognition of higher standards of accomplishment and typically is associated with advanced study and practice. A national professional body, such as the American Board of Internal Medicine, the American Board of Emergency Medicine, or the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards usually grants certification.
Tests often play an important role in licensure systems and in what candidates study and learn to prepare for licensure and practice (Darling-Hammond et al., 1999). Licensing tests are designed “to provide the public with a dependable mechanism for identifying practitioners who have met particular standards” (American Educational Research Association et al., 1999:156). Typically, panels of professionals determine the knowledge and skills that are critical for safe and effective performance, with an emphasis on the knowledge and skills that should be mastered prior to entering the profession (Stoker and Impara, 1995; American Educational Research Association et al., 1999). The test specifications for licensure examinations make explicit at least part of what professions consider worth knowing and how it should be known and demonstrated.
Specifications for licensure tests may also recognize advances in professional knowledge. Licensing exams are viewed as a means for ensuring that advances in professional knowledge are incorporated into professional education programs. For example, one way that fields such as medicine, engineering, and psychology ensure that new research knowledge gets used is by including it on licensing examinations, specialty board examinations, and accreditation guidelines for professional schools, hospitals, or other training sites. Although tests