Your Questions Answered: 2020 Cert Exam Administration

The COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly disruptive. It has required accommodation in many ways.  We understand this hardship, as we experience this time together.

Following the ABD’s recent message about changes to the upcoming 2020 Certification Examination due to the pandemic, we received feedback ranging from gratitude to serious concern.   The ABD received questions about why the decision was made to continue using the American Board of Pathology’s testing center in Tampa, as opposed to other online or local alternatives.  

Detailed below are answers to FAQs explaining ABD considerations regarding its decision to administer the 2020 examination.  We know these answers won’t bring an end to the disruption faced by many seeking initial certification, but please know that these decisions were made to accommodate candidates and at the same time fulfill obligations to administer a psychometrically valid certifying exam that meets the standards required of physicians certified by ABD.  We’ve heard your concerns and are doing our best to offer you choices.  Thank you for understanding.   

Why is there not an online proctoring option for the Certification Exam in July?
The ABD discussed and explored the possibility of administering a remote online proctored exam in place of the traditional examination in July. This was determined to not be possible for several reasons.

Online Proctored Exam Vendor Availability
Conducting an online proctored exam requires time and resources from a commercial test vendor, such as Pearson VUE. A limited number of live human proctors, using specialized vendor tools, are available to monitor online exams. Under the best of circumstances, vendor capacity is finite and exam administrations must be arranged many months to over a year in advance. With the COVID-19 crisis, test vendors are scrambling to re-accommodate existing clients with cancelled exams. Schedules are booked beyond the timeframe of our July Exam, and availability throughout the remainder of 2020 remains uncertain. With approximately 500 candidates for our Certification Exam, the ABD is a small customer. We are given much lower priority than large corporate clients, big medical boards such as the ABIM (with 10,000 annual candidates), or standardized tests such as the SAT/ACT (with 2 million annual candidates).  While not all clients require online proctoring, the ability of testing centers to accommodate business delayed by COVID-19 would push the administration of an online proctored dermatology exam well beyond July and likely into 2021. 

The ABD has employed online proctoring for lower-stakes exams since 2014. We favor this solution for the convenience it offers candidates, sparing them from travelling to a commercial test center or suspending patient care for a day to take a test. While this is a convenient option, reliability is a concern. Candidates taking the most recent CORE Exam encountered a higher than acceptable rate of online proctoring errors that the ABD is still working to resolve with the vendor. While the board felt it was appropriate to continue offering online proctoring for the CORE Exam, given the multiple options to take and pass, this unresolved error rate is unacceptably high for a one-time high-stakes exam. 

Various components of the current Certification Exam Format prohibit a seamless transition to online proctoring. A significant re-tooling of the exam would be required. While these format problems do not necessarily preclude using online proctoring, they are factors to consider. These challenges include:

The structure of the Certification Exam, with its virtual dermatopathology component, does not naturally lend itself to an online proctored format without considerable preparation and pre-testing. The ABD has not yet administered an exam via online proctoring with a large volume of virtual items. Further validation of this technology is imperative before implementing it on a high-stakes exam. (NOTE: The ABD decided to convert all glass slide items to virtual dermatopathology in 2020.)

The Certification Exam administered in Tampa, FL runs from approximately 7:30 am – 5:00 pm, inclusive of breaks. Currently online proctoring appointments are limited to a duration of 3.5 hours. Eliminating items on the exam, to reduce the duration, has psychometric implications and could result in an exam that is not valid for certification.  The alternative, holding the exam over 1 ½ days, poses additional problems with scheduling and capacity as described above.

Although we offer online proctoring for the MOC Exam and CORE Exam, these exams are not as high-stakes as an initial certification exam. There is an unacceptable risk of question security with remote testing. On a conference call attended by all ABMS Member Boards on April 16, 2020 it was discussed that no other ABMS Board intended to modify the standards for its certification exam and offer it via online proctoring. All 24 member boards of the ABMS, who administer exams to 100,000 residents, have similar issues with cancellations, rescheduling and delays in certification.  To assure the public that a physician is qualified to be certified, it is imperative that all initial certifying exams maintain the same rigorous standards despite this pandemic.

Why can’t the Certification Exam be offered in nationwide commercial test centers?
Similar to the restrictions presented above for online proctoring, administering the exam at a nationwide commercial test center requires planning and scheduling with the vendor many months to over a year in advance. Capacity at test centers is scarce since such vendors have been closed since the outbreak began and are only tentatively scheduled to open May 1. As noted above, accommodating cancelled exams for existing clients takes precedence over supporting new exams. Additionally, the concerns cited above about exam format apply in this context, with regards to exam duration and supporting a large volume of virtual dermpath items.

Are there any options for a resident to become board certified through exam pathways that do not involve travel to the Tampa exam center? 
Yes. Any board eligible candidate currently in the traditional certification pathway may switch to the new certification pathway. This involves passing 4 CORE Exam modules, which can be taken via online proctoring, then passing the APPLIED Exam, which can be taken at a local Pearson VUE test center. The first possible date to complete all portions of this new exam is July 2021.  Once in the new pathway, there is no option to switch back to the traditional pathway. 

The CORE modules may be scheduled at either a Pearson VUE test center or with a Pearson remote proctor, subject to availability*.  Modules are offered during specific dates in July*, November, and February.  Each module is a self-contained 2-hour exam.  All 4 modules may be taken on one day, if Pearson appointments are available.  

The APPLIED exam will be given at Pearson VUE test centers, with the first APPLIED exam scheduled for July 2021.  There is no remote proctoring option with the APPLIED exam.

* Pearson VUE does not have capacity to schedule additional test center or online proctor appointments for the CORE Exam until at least the fall of 2020.  

Senior residents already took the 2020 ABD Online Practice Exam. Why can't these residents bypass the CORE Exam requirement and just take the APPLIED Exam?
The purposes of the ABD Online Practice Exam (OPE) and the 4 CORE modules are very different. These are not considered equivalent exams.  The Online Practice Exam is the equivalent of the former In-Training Exam (ITE), with questions designed to assess performance on a wide range of difficulty levels, from basic to ready-to-graduate. It offers performance percentile ranks, but is not pass/fail.  It is considered a low-stakes exam that many residents use as a test of walking knowledge with minimal preparation and study required. The CORE modules are designed to assess graduate-level performance knowledge expected at the end of training. It is an assessment that is scientifically validated and psychometrically scrutinized at a much higher level than the lower-stakes Online Practice Exam.

Why can’t my program proctor my exam, in the same manner it does for the BASIC Exam?
Local proctoring does not meet standards for initial certification exam security. As of April 16, 2020, all 24 ABMS Member Boards plan to utilize secure testing centers and venues with professional proctors not connected with the training institution. 

When do the residents need to make the decision about which 2020 Certification Exam administration to attend?
The ABD will post a sign-up form no later than May 18 through which residents can indicate whether they wish to take the exam in Tampa in July or December. Residents will be asked to submit their preference by June 1. 

What precautions will you take during the Certification Exam in Tampa to respect social distancing?
We will follow current CDC guidelines in place at the time of the examination. Precautions have been discussed with the Tampa exam center and could be implemented, if recommended by the CDC. One definitive measure includes converting all glass slide items to virtual dermatopathology to avoid the exchange of slide trays between candidates. Virtual dermatopathology is a long-established feature of the exam in Tampa.

What is your timeline for deciding whether or not to offer the July test?
The COVID-19 situation is dynamic and unpredictable. Provided the Tampa exam center is open in July, the ABD will make a decision whether to offer the July test by June 8, 2020. Residents are under no obligation to take the exam in July.

In the 6-year eligibility period, will candidates need to go to Tampa to take the test (i.e. in 2022 will you still offer the Tampa exam)?  Or will candidates need to join the Core-Applied Pathway?   
The traditional certification pathway exam is planned for administration at the Tampa test center in both 2021 and 2022.  After 2022, everyone in the traditional certification pathway who has not passed the Certification Exam must transfer to the new pathway and pass the CORE and the APPLIED Exams.  

Have you worked with other boards to see what they are doing? 
Yes. The ABMS coordinates regular meetings and communication between the Member Boards and their leadership about the impact of COVID-19 on certification activities. At this time, the other impacted Boards have rescheduled their exams, as needed, but have not implemented alternative means of administration, including online proctoring. 

Given the circumstances of COVID-19, why doesn't the ABD consider granting eligible candidates a temporary 'board certified' status, and give a "Pass" on certification testing, since the pass rate is so high? 
Board certification is an important and valued achievement of a dermatologist and helps to separate the board-certified dermatologist from other non-board-certified health care providers who deliver care to patients with skin diseases and concerns. To give the status away without earning it devalues what it means to be a board-certified dermatologist. The ABD will not issue board certification status to all candidates. Only those who complete all board certification requirements will be granted board certification status.









FAQs about the 2020 Certification Exam

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