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Competency Assessment

Regulatory bodies in Ontario use a wide range of tools to decide whether applicants are qualified to enter the province’s 38 regulated professions. Regulators look at academic achievement, work or practice experience, and language skills, among other criteria.

A growing number of regulatory bodies also use competency assessments, tools that measure applicants’ ability to apply their skills and knowledge to perform specific profession-related tasks. Competency assessments are sometimes used for international applicants or in cases where applicants are unable to provide evidence of standard requirements for reasons beyond their control. In Ontario, 21 regulated professions (15 health professions and 6 non-health professions) now employ these methods.

Most competency assessment tools do not evaluate both skills and knowledge. A written exam, for instance, gives the applicant no opportunity to demonstrate practical skills; a clinical evaluation shows the applicant’s skills but cannot measure depth of knowledge. Most regulated professions that require competency assessment use at least two tools, but five professions use only one, a practice that the literature indicates is unreliable to measure competency.

Whichever assessment tools they choose, regulatory bodies must ensure that their procedures for competency assessment are transparent, objective, impartial and fair.

Which tools do Ontario’s regulated professions use for competency assessment?

Concerns about competency assessments

Identification of competencies

Eighteen of the 21 regulators using competency assessments have developed profiles or standards listing the competencies that are expected of entry-level practitioners. It is important for regulators to follow an objective and impartial process in identifying competencies, without allowing protectionism, labour market demand and other extraneous factors to influence choices.

Development of tools

In addition to identifying the competencies that form the basis for assessment, regulators must ensure that all components of each assessment tool are valid, reliable and sustainable. To be objective and fair to all applicants, the integrity and consistency of the evaluations must be guaranteed. Practice assessments in particular can be expensive to establish and maintain, so regulatory bodies that choose these methods must be sure that they will be able to fund the programs for the long term.

Objective criteria

Fourteen of the 21 regulators using competency assessments provide their evaluators with objective criteria for deciding whether applicants demonstrate each competency. Clear criteria, such as performance indicators and ratings guidelines, are vital to ensure consistent and impartial evaluations.

Opportunities for appeal

All regulatory bodies in Ontario have internal review and/or appeal procedures for their overall registration practices. However, for only 11 professions is it clear that the results of competency assessments can be appealed. For the other professions, decisions cannot be appealed or information about appeals was not available. Access to appeals is a fundamental aspect of fair registration practices, and clear information about appeals improves transparency.

Training for evaluators

Research strongly suggests that competency assessments require extensively trained evaluators in order to ensure reliable, objective and impartial decisions. Only 9 of the 21 professions using competency assessments train their evaluators; another 3 professions use only written exams and the scoring is automated. In the remaining 9 professions —which use a variety of assessment tools including OSCEs and other practice assessments —evaluators must also be well trained.

Cost of competency assessments

With the broad range of assessment tools used by professions, costs can vary enormously, raising questions about fairness for some applicants. OSCEs and clinical evaluations are consistently more expensive than written examinations, self-assessments or other paper-based tools. At the low end, a written exam may cost $225; practice assessments, including OSCEs, go up to $2,050; an exam with oral and written components may cost over $2,100.Furthermore, applicants may have to pay for more than one type of assessment. Additional fees are normally charged for rescoring or rewriting exams, for writing an exam outside Canada and for non-resident applicants.

Length of competency assessments

The requirement for competency assessments may lengthen the registration process for applicants. Individual competency assessments may be performed as quickly as other types of assessments, but when several assessments are required, the overall process can take several months or years. Regulators must ensure that the delays are no greater than what is fair to accommodate each applicant’s circumstances.

Language requirements

Internationally trained applicants may have to complete assessments in a language other than their first language. The regulator must provide clear information about the level of language proficiency required in order to be successful. Poor results may reflect a gap in language ability rather than lack of the competencies that the assessment is designed to test.

Travel requirements

For assessments that applicants must attend in person, applicants living outside Ontario may have to get visas, pay for travel and accommodation, and perhaps make special employment and family arrangements at home. These steps could mean a significant investment of money and time, possibly creating an unfair burden for some applicants.

October 2012

The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials defines competency assessment as "measurement of skills, level of knowledge, and behaviours obtained through formal or non-formal education, work experience, or other means, with the purpose of establishing applicant's possession of requirements for a trade or profession or for a program of study, or to identify training needs

Competency assessment is also referred to as competency-based assessment, prior learning assessment, or prior learning assessment and recognition.

Types of competency assessment tools

  • written examinations
  • practice assessments:
    • objective structured clinical examinations (OSCEs)
    • clinical/practical evaluations
  • self-assessments
  • interviews
  • paper-based assessments