The NCIDQ exam is more than a test - it defines standards and best practices for an entire industry..
NCIDQ's exam is well-known throughout North America. So whenever I'm with any group of interior designers, the conversation often turns to my activities as an NCIDQ board member. More often than not, the subject of the examination immediately comes up. The first thing I say is that NCIDQ is much more than the examination, and I begin by explaining other programs, such as continuing education monographs, record maintenance, CEU tracking and the Interior Design Experience program (IDEP).1 Yet NCIDQ's hallmark has always been the examination. Some designers have strong opinions—positive or negative—about the exam, but many are confused or uninformed about it.
Because the examination is indeed primary in conversations about NCIDQ, I want to use this forum to take a deeper look at the exam: what it's about and what its value is. The key concept to understand is that the exam is much more than a test. It defines standards and best practices for an entire industry.
To gauge designers' perceptions of the exam, I created an informal written survey, to which 14 people responded. I sent the survey to some designers who had passed the NCIDQ, some who had not, and others whose exam history I didn't know. All of my respondents are current practitioners.
Years of design experience ranged from one to 40 years; the overall average was 16 years in the field. Only one respondent did not have a degree in interior design. Surprisingly, all but two of the remaining 13 had four or more years of education in interior design. Two had degrees from a two-year program and
neither had taken the examination. Half of the respondents had passed the NCIDQ exam. One had taken the exam after one year of experience, and one after 20 years; but the average number of years of experience prior to taking the examination was nine. Of the remaining half who had not passed the examination, few had taken any part of the exam.
I asked the respondents who had passed the examination why they had taken it. I allowed multiple answers, and the two most frequently chosen were:
* because of a requirement for professional license or future license;
* as a requirement for a level of membership in a professional organization.
A third answer, identified by two-thirds of the respondents, was "not required, but an examination I wanted to take for my own accomplishment."
I asked them if passing the NCIDQ examination had resulted in any tangible or intangible changes for them. Only one answered that it had probably influenced acquiring a position in a new firm, since the examination enabled her to become another licensed professional for that employer. Passage of the exam resulted in tremendous self-satisfaction for all, and one respondent felt "greater respect from other designers."
Questions dealing with perceptions of the examination and its validity prompted the most surprising answers. One designer felt it was too easy and said even her "parents knew the answers to the study guide sample questions!" One said she knew people who had passed the exam who "did not represent competency in the profession." Most, however, felt it was too difficult, even "grueling." There was some perception that it was really only for commercial practitioners. One felt it had too little relevance to kitchens, baths or residential issues.
Is the NCIDQ exam too difficult? Sometimes we forget that the examination tests for "minimum competency" critical to the practice of interior design with consideration to the health, safety and welfare of the public, and that it crosses the spectrum of practice specialties. The questions and problems in the study guide may seem "too easy" to some designers, but the guide's purpose is to demonstrate the exam's methodology or "style" for candidates, not to test their knowledge or teach them how to pass.
How does NCIDQ arrive at a standard of "minimum competency"? It is crucial to understand the basis for the examination and how the passing score for each section is determined. The format of the current exam is exemplary of a shift from testing that relies on academic recall to testing that places a greater emphasis on practical experience and application. The basis for the exam is the Practice Analysis, conducted every five years. NCIDQ engages the services of an independent organization to survey practitioners to determine the distinct body of knowledge, methodology and skills needed for practice now. The survey, which utilizes recognized research methods for accuracy and credibility, determines which skills interior designers are perceived to be most proficient in compared to all professionals. It determines what distinguishes interior design from related or companion professions. The just-completed "2003 Analysis of the Interior Design Profession" is the current basis for determining minimum competency, and for the examinations to be offered beginning in 2005.
While the body of knowledge and skill for interior design, like any profession, is vast, a properly developed professional examination such as the NCIDQ samples that body in a representative fashion so that inferences about a candidate's knowledge can be justified on the basis of his or her scores. These samples cross all topics and areas deemed necessary, including ergonomics, sustainability, codes, accessibility, lighting, contract administration—to name only a few. This method, called "domain sampling strategy," is not unique to testing, but is rather the basis of virtually all Western scientific research.
As the Practice Analysis dictates, minimum competencies change. Using the analysis as the baseline for the knowledge areas and skills being tested, an extraordinary volunteer team of practitioners and educators determines the questions and problems that make up the examination. They research and document the correct answer to every question. For example, the multiple choice questions have a correct answer and three other choices, called distracters, which are purposefully relevant and recognizable by the candidate, but still incorrect for the particular question. Every exam question and problem is pre-tested before it ever reaches an actual candidate.
What score does it take to pass? The passing point is determined by a criterion-reference approach called the Angoff Modified Technique. This is considered by the testing profession to be one of the most defensible methods available for setting passing points, and relies on the pooled judgments of our content experts. These experts review every question and task in every examination and ask: "What is the probability that a 'minimally acceptable' candidate will answer this correctly?" The group of "minimally acceptable" candidates is then evaluated as to what proportion of that group will answer each item correctly. This psychometric evaluation coupled with probabilities and the total number of items on the test serves to identify the "minimally acceptable" score.
Would an incompetent group of candidates pass the exam at the same rate as
a competent group? No, because the scoring method also considers the history of passing candidates, not just those in a single test period. While the exam development process I've just described may seem like a lot of left-brain style information, be assured that the entire complex process is authenticated by NCIDQ's testing consultant, CASTLE Worldwide, Inc., led by the highly-respected psychometrician Dr. James Henderson.
I asked the respondents of my informal survey why they might not take the NCIDQ examination now, regardless of whether they had ever done so. Justifications included not having the time to prepare, lack of local available assistance for a study group, and the
cost of the test, along with travel, lodging and time for the testing endeavor. To minimize ancillary costs, NCIDQ offers the exam in over 60 locations twice each year. Candidates are required to register about four months in advance in order for NCIDQ to arrange testing locations. The locations are finalized once the geographic locations of registrants are known. The NCIDQ exam costs $650—favorably comparable to registration exam fees of around $1,000 for architects and $800 for landscape architects—and it remains the examination criterion for a professional license in regulatory jurisdictions in North America. In a jurisdiction without regulation, the NCIDQ exam may be the only thing distinguishing an individual from others who may claim the same title for work, but cannot quantifiably prove their competency.
A few survey respondents shocked me by saying they were "too old" to take the NCIDQ. Too old? I challenge this with two examples. I passed the NCIDQ as a "forty-something." I took the exam after 18 years of practice when Florida passed interior design legislation, and for membership in an organization I felt aligned best with my professional goals. With her permission, I share that Mary Ann Bryan of Houston is a "sixty-something" example! Mary Ann was the first and sole interior designer appointed to the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners when Texas passed interior design legislation. While Mary Ann was not required to take the exam, she felt it was appropriate since the NCIDQ was the approved examination for licensing in Texas. To the excuse "I'm too old," I say, "Bah humbug!"
I can confirm that the board of directors remains committed to the examination as NCIDQ's core program, and as the proven benchmark for minimum competency for the interior design profession. I can also say that passing the exam gave me enormous
satisfaction and led me to become very involved in Florida legislative and regulatory activities, and subsequently with NCIDQ itself. Whether you are a professional needing to pass the examination for licensure, registration or association membership, it is never too late to take it for your personal growth and satisfaction. Hopefully, this article will correct some misperceptions, dispel some fears and encourage you to move forward to be
a candidate. Contact NCIDQ for information on the next registration—
I challenge you to do it now!
Janice Roberts Young, FIIDA, ASID is a current NCIDQ Board Director and practitioner in Jacksonville, FL. She is also a former member of the Florida Board of Architecture and Interior Design regulatory body.