Improving Exam Accessibility

By David Stephenson

As the April 1st beginning of the certification exam year draws near, it’s a good time to look at the progress we’ve made in improving accessibility to the exam. To recall: as recently as 2015, all exams were administered in physical sittings and were handwritten. Fast forward to 2022, when the exam was made available online and on-demand for the first time. Two years earlier, at the peak of the COVID crisis, demand for the exam had plummeted from over 400 candidates a year to only a handful. Well, it wasn’t so much demand that was down, it was our ability to stage physical sittings amid pandemic restrictions.

At least the lockdown and other unpleasantries from 2020 had a silver lining. It gave us the final nudge toward offering the exam online. Through diligent efforts by the late Michèle Hansen as Certification Committee chair and Caron Bailey as Certification Program manager at ATA Headquarters, in 2021 we were able to offer online exams at preset times, in cooperation with our partners at ExamRoom.AI. Over 150 candidates registered for the online exam, while fewer than 90 opted for the traditional format of bringing their own laptop to a physical proctored sitting.

In 2022, we took the next step of making the exam available on demand, rather than during specified time slots with a limited number of candidates. Candidates can now register for the exam and in some cases take it the same day. This forced us to rethink a few things. Most of all, with an on-demand format, it wasn’t feasible for us to have ATA proctors available 24/7 to supplement ExamRoom’s own proctors. But relying solely on their proctors, who are not translators, raised issues about our “deny list” approach, whereby candidates could access all of the internet apart from specifically prohibited sites, such as DeepL. That’s why in 2022 we rolled out the “allow list”: a set of carefully selected web resources that are available to all candidates during the exam—to the exclusion of everything else. At last, the final puzzle piece was in place, allowing us to offer the exam on demand.

So, how did that work out, and how do things look for 2023? We saw several trends last year:

  • Demand was up, slightly surpassing even the “normal” 2019 figure, though still not up to the 500 or so who took the exam each year in the early and mid-2010s. Just under 300 people took the online exam, while a little over 120 sat for the exam in person.
  • The ratio of in-person to online registrations was further skewed in the direction of the latter—hardly a surprising development given the sheer convenience of testing at home.
  • Several prominent ATA chapters and affiliates chose to no longer sponsor exam sittings and instead referred their members to the online exam.
  • Some language pairs saw a bump in their pass rate, most likely due to qualified candidates who previously didn’t have access to the physical exam finally earning their certification.
  • Technical issues with the online exam were few and far between and were often attributable to inadequate internet bandwidth due to throttling after a certain time by internet service providers, or occasionally the candidate’s own equipment.

Looking ahead to 2023, many aspects of the exam offering are unchanged, but there are other things that we’re modifying or looking at closely.

  • The exam year will continue to run roughly from April through September, plus in-person sittings at ATA’s Annual Conference. The six-month hiatus is necessary because of ATA Headquarters staffing constraints and to allow new passages to be selected, refined, and integrated into the ExamRoom system.
  • We’ll continue to allow chapters, affiliates, and other groups in the U.S. to organize physical sittings. However, we’ll closely monitor the level of interest in these sittings to determine whether this hybrid model of exam formats is worth continuing in 2024 and beyond.
  • Effective this year, we’ll no longer have sittings outside the U.S. Administering sittings abroad is hugely expensive, due mostly to higher shipping charges, and there’s always a risk of delays when exam materials are held up at customs or other red tape. Candidates in other countries now have an easy way to take the exam on their own schedule by registering for the online format.
  • Speaking of money, we’ll be taking a close look at the relative costs and whether an adjustment in the registration fee is warranted. Moving the exam online eliminates the need to rent facilities and pay proctors, though the overall impact on ATA Headquarters’ overhead is not yet clear.
  • We’re working with ExamRoom to move the practice test to that platform as well. Besides enhancing administrative processes, this also has the advantage of allowing candidates to experience the interface in a lower-pressure situation, so that when it comes time to take the exam itself, that will be one less thing to fret about. Behind the scenes, we’re also hoping to move the grading process itself online, which would greatly streamline operations.

It’s an exciting time for ATA’s Certification Program, and those of us who have been involved with it for many years occasionally have a sense of whiplash from all the changes. Alongside these improvements in accessibility, the Certification Committee is also hard at work making the exam even more equitable and consistent. A belated Happy New Year to everyone!

New Certified Members

Congratulations! The following members have successfully passed ATA’s certification exam!

English into Korean
Hyewon Kim
Los Angeles, CA

English into Spanish
Elsa R. Videla Cabrera
Acton, CA

French into English
Christopher Dinon
Moorestown, NJ

Nolan E. Fielder
Roseville, CA

Emily B. Toll
Washington, DC

Spanish into English
April Overstreet
Salem, OR


David Stephenson, CT is chair of ATA’s Certification Committee. An ATA-certified German>English, Dutch>English, and Croatian>English translator, he has been an independent translator for over 30 years, specializing in civil litigation and creative nonfiction. He was the 2022 recipient of ATA’s Impact Award.

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