CPSI Certification and Recertification Issues: Why do CPSIs have to retest every 3 years?

CPSI Certification and Recertification Issues: Why do CPSIs have to retest every 3 years?
By Kenneth S. Kutska, CPSI, Executive Director, International Playground Safety Institute, LLC
April 1, 2015

Over the past few weeks a series of comments and questions related to the CPSI examination process have surfaced on one of the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) social/professional networks appropriately named, NRPA Connect. The group network or community is named, “CPSI & Playground Safety Community.” This online community is open to any CPSI Course participant regardless if they pass the CPSI examination. For more information on how to join contact Karen Snyder, NRPA Playground Safety Coordinator at ksnyder@nrpa.org. As I reviewed the questions and comments the primary concern or issue is the requirement to re-certify by taking the examination every three years. The second issue was the CPSI Candidate’s desire to know what questions they got wrong and have the opportunity to discuss the correct answer with NRPA or their course instructor. Here are some excerpts from the comments made on the NRPA Connect: CPSI & Playground Safety Community.

Why do I need to keep re-certifying to maintain my CPSI?

“I, too, agree that taking the test to recertify is a waste. My pesticide recertification only requires a one day class. I am all for the class for updates.”

“I agree with you, did the online exam three years ago and plan the same for my recertification in March. This will be for the 5th time I have taken the test. All my other certifications require educational and work experiences but not testing.”

“I liked the in-class course. I learned a lot however, to have to recertify every three years by passing the basic exam is a money grab plain and simple. It’s like in school, we all cram for the test and when the test is over, that’s it. Nobody can possibly remember all these requirements. That’s what they have reference materials for. It is my opinion that recertification should be performance based similar to the Certified Safety Profession (CSP) or the Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). We are required to show proof of continued education, proof that you are actually working in the field, etc. The application for recertification has a cost to it, but not an exam! Why doesn’t a lawyer have to retake the BAR exam every three years? By-the-way, the online refresher is Xcellent!”

“I did my last recertification using the online prep and it work great for me. It helped me pass my re-cert exam locally. My only issue is having to re-cert every three years. I have numerous professional certifications in the professional safety and environmental engineering field and they do not require taking a recertification test. You do have to show proof of continued education and be working in the field but no testing.”

“I would not consider the online tutorial and exam for the 1st or 2nd time. I have taken it 6 times. Regardless of who pays for it (and I hope it’s your employer) it is worth it to network with others about all the other things. I knew one guy that was unemployed at the time and got a job from one of the other attendees. He still complains about the 3 day interview.”

“I took the online course last year and was able to pass the test with a good margin. If I had to do it over again, I would take the class in person as I did quite a bit of outside studying of the ASTM and CPSC standards. It seems very beneficial to have the interaction with others to talk through situations. The pros and cons of the online program are as follows;
4 modules with questions peppered throughout and a practice exam.
Can work at your own pace at your workstation.
Great for folks who are good at taking standardized tests.

No collaborative feedback.
Still need to study outside of the materials presented in the modules.”

Here is my initial response to the group.

“Any national certification program worth its salt requires a consistent approach to maintain the integrity of the exam. These requirements are not just established by NRPA. They are created and maintained by organizations whose responsibility and livelihood are based on the integrity and reliability of the examination results. It assures ongoing credibility based on the body of knowledge and exam questions which have passed the test of time. Over time each exam and question is analyzed for its validity from year to year. National certification exams have a specified number of repeat questions used in each exam from one year to the next. These questions are known as “equators”. Without these equator questions the exam company cannot effectively evaluate and compare the year to year results of each and every exam and establish a passing rate that reflects consistency in the passing rate from one year to the next. NRPA could stop the current practice any time they choose but they could no longer defend the CPSI as a national or international certification program. Knowing what questions one gets incorrect on the exam would rapidly negate any exam security and the credibility of the CPSI Certification designation. Many of these questions have been asked time and time again. Nobody is requiring anyone to attain this CPSI designation. Having the CPSI designation does not make one an expert or a good inspector. Hopefully it makes one a better inspector. I am currently writing my column for Professional Playground’s electronic newsletter. It will be a bit of a historic account of how the CPSI Certification came about and some of the options for attaining and maintaining this certification if one chooses or is required to do so. A CPSI is just one of approximately 6 to 7 thousand certified individuals whose primary responsibility is to identify safety concerns which could severely injure a child. Take pride in your achievement and do not rest on your past exam results. Until you get 100% on an exam there is always room for improvement and the opportunity to learn new things. Only with continuing education can you attain this goal. And, only by passing a rigorous examination can one prove they have gained the knowledge necessary to use the CPSI designation”.

In order to better understand how the CPSI Certification program and examination got to where it is today we need to understand from where it evolved.

A bit of history on the CPSI Certification designation and CPSI examination.

A Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) designation is something that is earned. It is something to be proud of attaining. It does not come easy and not everyone is capable of passing the rigorous requirements of the CPSI Certification Examination. Why doesn’t everyone pass the CPSI exam the first time, if ever? We are talking about information and requirements that can make the difference between life and death of a child. Playground safety requirements may not be rocket science but there is a lot of important information that needs to be processed and understood so the CPSI can apply this knowledge to their day to day job responsibilities. Today a CPSI is one of approximately 6,000 to 7,000 individuals internationally who have passed this examination and become part of this very important group. The reason I cannot give an exact number of CPSIs is because the number fluctuates daily. Every three years the CPSI is required to re-certify. The certification exam dates fluctuate from month to month and year to year. Now with the availability of online testing the CPSI Candidate can go almost anywhere in the USA to a local NRPA approved testing lab and take the examination without ever attending one of the over 50 CPSI Courses offered annually throughout the USA. In any week during March or April it is not unusual to have more than 8 to 10 courses. This amounts to approximately 300 to 600 CPSI Candidates. While CPSI designation does not make anyone an expert it is proof of some level of understanding of the information necessary for the care and feeding of a public play area. Only by practicing their trade through the thoughtful and appropriate application of this knowledge will a CPSI gain the necessary experience to someday be considered an expert in public playground inspections, operations and management.

It is true that lawyers and doctors get certified by their respective professional organizations and once they pass their bar exam or boards they begin their practice as lawyers and physicians. I cannot speak to these programs as I am not well versed in the inner workings of their type of certification. They can do what they need to do to maintain the integrity of their profession and NRPA will continue to do what they think is best to maintain the integrity of their four different national certification programs; Aquatic Facility Operators, Certified Park and Recreation Professional, Certified Park and Recreation Executive, and Certified Playground Safety Inspector.

How did the CPSI Certification designation come about?

The NRPA has been offering the Certified Playground Safety Inspector Course and Exam since 1994. The first National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI) was held in Baltimore, Maryland as a NRPA pre-conference education program in 1991. The NPSI fast became the premier source for comprehensive playground and playground safety education. The playground industry market sought some form of acknowledgement for attaining some level of proficiency in public playground management due to the many issues that began to surface just prior to the release of the revised 1991 US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) Handbook for Public Playground Safety. It was not until after the 1992 NPSI Program the NPSI Executive Committee decided to apply for national certification recognition by the National Certification Board (NCB) of the NRPA. It took almost three years of work and resubmittal to get all the necessary documentation to the NCB to authorize a conditional certification designation with the agreement that there would be an examination created based on a multi-disciplined written justification of need for such a training program and acceptance of nationally recognized body of knowledge. The course curriculum outline and course content outline for the national certification examination would be based on this body of knowledge. Fran Wallach was instrumental in developing the first course content outline with a course outline of competencies to be learned by each and every participant.

Body of Knowledge Exam selected in lieu of Job Performance or Description form of Certification.
I think we can all acknowledge the fact that the national audience for public playground management is very diverse. If we were to attempt to create CPSI certification based solely on one’s job description a one-size-fits-all approach would be difficult to create and defend for each discipline involved in the planning, design, manufacture, installation, inspection, and maintenance of a play area. The care and feeding of a public play area is like a team sport. If one or more of its starting players does not fulfill their job responsibility the team’s chances of winning the game are greatly diminished. It was during my discussions with Fran Wallach, Monty Christiansen and others that I realized the path to national certification would be best served through a “Body of Knowledge” based certification exam versus “Job Description” type of certification. Another major factor behind our decision to move forward with certification was that the scope of our audience who would benefit from this basic body of knowledge which crosses over into the many disciplines involved in the playground industry. This broad based body of knowledge would be of great value to all involved. I think those of us who have participated in one or more of the CPSI courses would agree not everyone may utilize each and every part of the course curriculum. The overall goal was to make sure each person better understood their role in the big picture of playground management and design while striving to do their part to assure the safety of the users and the proper function of the equipment even though each CPSI Candidate may not use all the information in their current job.

As Chair of the NPSI during its formative years it became my role to shepherd the CPSI Program through the national certification application process. It took us a few attempts to get all the required documentation in place. The CPSI designation was finally recognized and approved by the independent National Certification Board of the NRPA after administering the first CPSI certification examination and presenting those examination results including the required process of examination analysis and validation.

Soon after the CPSI Course achieved national certification status the NRPA hired an independent contractor to oversee and manage the certification exam process, including its ongoing development, implementation, exam scoring, and test administrations. This removed all potential conflicts of interest when it comes to the integrity of the exam and the certification process. The independent contractor works with NRPA staff to secure exam content experts and also works closely with the NRPA CPSI Certification Committee who is responsible for the ongoing review and management of the CPSI course content outline. This course content outline represents the formula for the national CPSI Certification Exam.

Once a year the CPSI Exam Committee meets to write new questions, review proposed test questions, and approve the final testing instruments for the coming year. During this process the course content experts take the exam numerous times and establish a degree of difficulty for each and every one of the three styles of questions found in any exam. These three types of questions are; recall, application and analysis. Recall questions are the easiest type of question and analysis the most difficult. The ongoing maintenance of the complete pool of questions are continually reviewed for their relevance to the body of knowledge and new questions are added to the pool while some are removed.

Over the past twenty years there have been many formal requests made by both CPSI candidates and CPSIs challenging the need re-certify and take the CPSI Exam every three years. Some people make the case that other national certifications only require proof of continuing education to maintain their certification. Some claim their test is an open book exam. Some state that once they pass the exam the first time their certifications are good for life. While some, if not all of these suggestions, seem reasonable the CPSI Program has adhered to the standards established by international organizations responsible for accrediting national certification programs. This is the only way independent testing companies who oversee and administer national certification programs and the NRPA are able to defend their certification program and the integrity of the examination against challenges from the outside.

What are the Body of Knowledge components used in the CPSI Course?

The Body of Knowledge used to establish the CPSI Certification is identified in the CPSI Candidate Handbook which is available free online at www.nrpa.org. It includes all the pertinent information on the CPSI Certification program including the CPSI Course Content Outline for the 100 question exam. A major component of the course is hazard identification and impact attenuating surfacing requirements based on industry accepted standards and recommendations. This is approximately 60% of the exam content. The ASTM standards are a major component of the program and they must be reviewed, modified or reaffirmed at least every five years by the standards writing organization. Since the ASTM F1487 Standard was first published in 1993 it has been revised and re-published in 1995, 98, 01, 05, 07, 11 and will again be revised by early 2016 so shall the course content need to change. Each year, some years more than others, the exam questions change to reflect the current standards and best practices while still following the course exam content outline. This course content outline is modified from time to time when standards change. NRPA has conducted surveys with the assistance of qualified independent contractors to gain input from the playground related industry partners and CPSIs. The objective of these surveys is to affirm what is necessary for a CPSI to complete their duties as a playground safety inspector. Currently the 100 question CPSI exam is based on these most current documents; ASTM F1487 Standard, ASTM F2223 Standard, US CPSC Handbook for Public Playground Safety, and the book, Playground Safety Is No Accident, 5th Edition.

Re-certify without attending a CPSI Course and Exam in person.

Participation in the CPSI Course is a major commitment from the candidate and their place of employment. The cost to attend, in person, the CPSI course and examination can be anywhere from $450 to $650 for the two day training. Costs do vary as local hosts establish their program cost based on the host organization’s continuing education policy. Some hosts have increased registration costs to cover extra training room rental fees, audio visual equipment rental, and associated food costs, especially when conducted in hotels. In addition to the CPSI candidate’s registration fee the candidate must be gone from their job for at least four days.
NRPA continues to look for new ways to increase the passing rate of the examination and soften the financial impact to the individual and agency who pays to attend the program. Over the past few years the NRPA has offered several new items to assist a CPSI Candidate in prepare to sit for their first certification exam or prepare to recertify. A CPSI can even take the exam online at approved local testing laboratories. All these options can be found on the www.nrpa.org Website. The CPSI Candidate Handbook is covers all requirements of the program and how to go about preparing for the course and exam. The CPSI Course Tutorial is available online in four course modules that can all be acquired as a package or purchased individually. The materials come right from the current CPSI course PowerPoint presentation. Each module asks questions that must be answered to continue through the module. There is also a practice exam that will help prepare the candidate for the types of questions to be expected on the examination whether it is the online version or the paper exam as offered when a candidate attends the course in person. A candidate can retake the examination as many times as they chose until they successfully attain a passing score. Sometime exam anxiety can effect one’s performance even when they believe they are knowledgeable and well prepared for the exam. The CPSI Certification Committee allows retesting once a month which is about as quick as one can reapply and get approval to take and exam at some preapproved location and time.

Why do CPSIs have to re-certify by taking the exam?

To answer the question I would respond by asking another question. Do you think it reasonable to expect a CPSI who barely passes the exam with a 70+ out of 100 score to get re-tested at some time in the future?


Ask yourself, when you are selecting a doctor to perform a very serious surgical procedure on yourself do you shop price or select one who barely finished medical school? I look for a doctor who finished first in their class and has successfully performed the procedure thousands of times with living references to attest to the doctor’s knowledge and surgical skill?

Since the CPSI is responsible for the safety and well-being of children, how better to assure those responsible for this important task are kept current with the requirements necessary to operate their public play spaces? Should they be able to demonstrate improvement in their knowledge and skill to apply that knowledge? Is three years a reasonable period of time before re-testing is required? How else can a CPSI demonstrate their improved knowledge of the standards and the application of these standards in the field? There is no continuing education program that can measure one’s grasp of this body of knowledge therefore the only reasonable and manageable way to accomplish this end is by demonstrating a marked improvement in their passing exam score? NRPA could not substantiate these outcomes without an exam score based on a test instrument that has been created and maintained with strict adherence to policies and procedures established by international certification exam requirements. National certification programs are best created and managed by organizations whose reputation and very existence is based on the integrity of each and every certification program they manage.

Having a CPSI to implement an agency’s playground safety inspection and maintenance program can be a very important defense tool for the playground owner when it comes to protecting our children at play from unreasonable and preventable injuries. A CPSI can be the first line of defense in protecting the playground owner from costly claims of negligence. In addition, the CPSI has the responsibility to preserve and protect the function and capital investment made by the owners, usually local taxpayers. A CPSI has a big responsibility therefore I suggest that until a CPSI Candidate scores 100 on their next CPSI exam they need to keep working towards that goal. There is always room for improvement. If and when you do attain that 100% mark please give us a call. We could use your talents!

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