Last year, an issue of the American Academy of Industrial Hygiene's newsletter brought to light the downward spiral of test scores by individuals seeking to be Certified Industrial Hygienists, sparking a debate about the changing face of industrial hygiene.

Certification is a two-step process involving first a one-day core examination in basic industrial hygiene (for applicants with one year of professional experience) and a more in-depth comprehensive exam (taken after applicants have five years experience).

In 1979, the pass rate for the core exam was about 76 percent; in 1995, the pass rate was 43 percent. For the comprehensive test, the pass rate dropped from 63 percent in 1979 to 39 percent in 1995.

What's going on?

Are less qualified people trying to become certified? Is the industrial hygiene field being diluted by "professional tourists" who only want to pick up credentials on their way to bigger salaries and better jobs? Or is the problem with education -poor study habits, ineffective coaching, or outdated test questions?

Not surprisingly, it's easy to find a range of opinions among CIHs, who represent an estimated 40 percent of all field practitioners (in 1994 more than 6,600 professionals had been certified). Let's start with Lynn O'Donnell, the executive director of the American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH), which administers the certification exams. She attributes the falling scores to the IH professions move toward specialization.

O'Donnell believes examinees have more narrow field experience than in the past. In general, the field has seen more people working almost exclusively in niches such as asbestos and indoor air quality. Plus, there's been a growing emphasis on compliance issues. This doesn't bode well for passing exams that cover a wide range of topics such as biostatistics and epidemiology, ergonomics, ethics and management, noise and vibration, regulations, and radiation.

O'Donnell also points to several other factors: A larger pool of applicants (1,484 individuals took the core and comprehensive exams in 1995 versus 810 in 1979 -an 83 percent increase), more intricate levels and numbers of regulations, and more sophisticated tools of the trade -gas analyzers and other instrumentation.

"It's just a different world," she says.

Other IHs agree that the growing popularity of certification is dragging down scores -and changing the profile of the profession. Some say industrial hygiene is a victim of its own success. CIH credentials today are not only attractive to technical experts, but also consultants, trainers, and attorneys. As more people sit for the exam, the pass rates go down, says Kyle Dotson, CIH, CSP, director of occupational health and safety for Phelps Dodge Corp.

What's troubling to some IHs is the idea that declining scores reflect diminishing dedication to the field. The commitment is to getting a better job, not to truly learning the profession, they fear.

This can lead to poor study habits. If the goal is just to get credentials to add to a resume, applicants might be tempted to take short-cuts. Cramming for a month or a week before the exam is not the kind of thorough education necessary for excelling as an IH, says Howard Cohen, CIH, associate professor of occupational safety and health management for the University of New Haven. He says the actual test should not be more important than preparing for it.

Many hygienists say this is the problem: Too many certification candidates focus on what may be on the test, take exam preparation classes, and hope to skate by on experience and minimal homework.

A decline in mentoring may also hurt the exams, say some CIHs. This kind of one-on-one coaching is important to the learning process and to conscientious and exemplary field experience. But in today's business world, who has time for it? And people don't stay in place long enough for relationships to form, says Barbara Cohrssen, CIH, editor of the AAIH newsletter.

As a result, applicants might be naive about their readiness to sit for the exams. Cohen thinks many certification hopefuls slip into test rooms not realizing their background and study have left them unprepared. Any person seeking certification should be ready to take the core test the day they apply, say both Cohen and Edward Bartosh, Jr., CIH, and a director for the ABIH. The exam should be a test of knowledge gained through experience and education, not the object of crash-course cramming.

Beyond industrial hygiene

How do industrial hygiene certification scores stack up with general trends in testing? The Scholastic Aptitude Tests used for college admissions have also experienced a decline in scores. But SAT numbers are on the rise again following implementation of "artificial inflation" -an upgrade that allows a student with a previous combined score of 890 to get an even 1000, for example, says Paul Edelblut, executive director of the Princeton Review, which provides tutoring for standardized tests. The new SAT format is also more coachable, he says. Roger Brauer, acting executive director of the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, which administers the popular CSP program, says his group hasn't studied pass rates. But commercialization of certification is evident in the safety ranks, as well. Brauer says the number of CSP examinees has grown from 1,752 in 1990 to 3,355 in 1995m -a 91 percent increase in five years.

Back to industrial hygiene -what should be done, if anything, about the falloff in pass rates? The professions certifying board is concerned, but has no plans to specifically address the downward trend. The ABIH thinks its exams are on target, but the group might begin to check if specific questions are causing problems, says Lyle Edinger, manager of technical affairs for the ABIH.

As it is, exam questions change regularly; new questions go through a validation process. Each of the ABIH's directors are responsible for a different rubric on the exam. Any CIH is invited to submit questions and get maintenance points for doing so. Directors review submitted questions. Testing and educational consultants finish the job, pointing out awkward or misleading questions and checking for an appropriate degree of difficulty. It could just be that lower certification pass rates are the price of progress. "The profession is evolving. Things are changing, but that's OK," says Cohen. It's hard to be a popular profession and remain elitist, he says.