Practical testing. It is a topic that occasionally comes up when discussing exam preparation. For the most part, people express the opinion that practical testing is the way to go. There is a belief that a multiple choice test cannot possibly measure all aspects of personal training and that all personal trainer exams should have a practical section where candidates can really show what they know. While this all sounds good in theory, there's much more to consider.
For those not familiar with the concept of practical testing, it is a hands on/in person portion of a certification exam. This hands on/in person portion requires you (the candidate) to perform fitness related tasks – such as taking blood pressure, conducting a cardio fitness test, assessing body composition – under the observation of an examiner. The examiner observes your performance and provides a score reflective of your ability.
But is it possible to evaluate individuals in a consistent, objective manner when it's a person doing the judging? Practical examiners are instructed to be objective and impersonal…but that can be more difficult than you think since it's still a person doing the evaluation, and many different people at that. Maybe you may come into the testing room with your hands shaking and voice wavering, and the examiner decides that you need just a little extra encouragement on something you do kind of incorrectly giving you an advantage. Maybe you come in to take a practical and you remind the examiner of their ex-husband. Or you swagger into the testing room like that know-it-all kid they hated in high school.
In practical testing the goal of the examiner is objectivity, but there is no guarantee it happens especially when going from one person to the next. In addition, there are standards for how to conduct certain practical elements – such as how to take skinfolds, or how to apply a blood pressure cuff. However, my range of acceptable technique may differ from another examiner’s range of acceptable technique. I may be okay with ‘close enough’ while another examiner will only approve a skill that exactly matches the standard. In that type of situation, your pass or failure could depend on one person’s interpretation of the rules.
The NCCA accreditation process (which has certified all ACE exams) requires that the examination process be fair and unbiased (see FAQ for more details). A practical testing component cannot measure up to this requirement. This is one of the primary reasons that none of the NCCA accredited certifications contain a practical testing component – this includes certification exams from ACSM, NSCA, NETA, and NASM.
A secondary reason practical testing is not conducted has to do with the logistics involved. If any of the NCCA accredited certification organizations conducted practical testing, all exams would move to a live paper and pencil format – there would no longer be an option to do computer based testing. The cost for the certification exam would also skyrocket. Instead of $250 to sit for the ACE certification exam, you would be seeing pricing of $800+ to take a certification exam with a practical component.
While the desire for practical testing is understandable, how it can be done effectively is very different. Many years ago I sat for an ACSM exam that included practical testing – yes, before the NCCA accreditation became standard. The practical portion of that exam was challenging, the equipment different than the equipment I used in my daily practice, and I was extremely nervous about ‘performing’ in front of strangers who could determine my success. While I passed my practical (barely), I failed my multiple choice because even though I had been a practicing fitness professional for several years, I had forgotten a lot of the ‘whys’ I learned in school. And that book knowledge is just as important as being able to perform skills.
ACE has always understood the need to test the ability to apply the knowledge you've acquired. This is why the ACE certification exam’s multiple-choice questions are designed to test your ability to apply knowledge to determine the most appropriate course of action in a variety of personal training scenarios.
Questions? Contact an ACE Education Consultant at 1-888-825-3636 x782
***Want to improve your practical skills? Check out our list of ACE live workshops.