Licensing and Certification Exams
There is no certification for physical therapy aides. However, in most states, both physical therapy assistants and physical therapists are required to pass national board exams before they can become licensed to practice. Licensure exams for both physical therapists and physical therapy assistants are administered through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). The purpose of the exam is to ensure the competency of physical therapy professionals before they are allowed to practice their profession. The exam focuses on the clinical application of knowledge and principles of physical therapy. In order to take the exam, each candidate needs to meet the eligibility requirements for the state in which he intends to apply for licensure. Both the physical therapist and physical therapy assistant exams are computer based and administered at any of nearly 300 testing sites by a testing company called Prometric. The exam for physical therapy assistants contains 200 items and the exam for licensure as a physical therapist is composed of 250 items. Security is a priority at these high-stakes exams and test takers must present photo identification and even submit to a fingerprint scan.
Once completed, the exam is scored by the FSBPT and the raw score is converted to a scaled score ranging from 200 to 800. The reason for this is that there are many versions of the exam which may vary slightly in their degree of difficulty and a scaled score means that the examinee’s score will be representative regardless of which version of the exam they took. The minimum passing score is 600, with the number of correct answers needed to obtain this score varying between versions of the exam. In other words, if a somewhat easier version of the exam is taken, a higher percentage of correct answers would be required to achieve a score of 600. The results of the exam are sent to the state licensing authority and those who pass can then be licensed to practice within that state. If a candidate is unsuccessful in obtaining a passing score, the exam may be retaken up to 3 times within a year. Some states require a minimum waiting period before the exam can be re-taken.
Some professionals with a physical therapy degree choose to further specialize in one of the eight areas certified by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. The specialties are: Cardiovascular and Pulmonary, Clinical Electrophysiology, Geriatrics, Neurology, Orthopedics, Pediatrics, Sports, and Women's Health. Passage of another exam is also required to become board certified in any of the specialties. In order to sit for this exam, the therapist must first meet certain requirements, demonstrating a level of experience within that area. The specialty exam is administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners using the Prometric testing service company.
Preparing for the Exam
Obviously the licensing exam is a large hurdle in the pathway to being able to actually practice the
profession, so adequate preparation is essential to clearing this barrier. There are numerous websites
and study guides that seek to help those with a physical therapy degree succeed in passing the
licensure exam. One place to start is with the Candidate Handbook available for free downloading from
the FSBPT. It includes information for both physical therapist and physical therapy assistant licensing
exams. One of the most important pieces of information in the handbook is the content outline for the
exam. This table breaks down the exam into several different categories and sub-categories and lists the
number of questions over each of the topics. Each category is then broken down in outline form as to the
basic topics that the examinee should know. This is a great place to start to make sure you have
adequately reviewed each area. The FSBPT website has a few sample questions to provide an example of the
format of the questions. In addition, the FSBPT maintains a Practice Exam and Assessment Tool (PEAT)
that simulates the licensure exam.
For a fee, the candidate may take 2 practice exams designed to mimic the actual licensure exam for
either physical therapists or physical therapy assistants. The PEAT then gives the examinee a report of
their results broken down into content categories so the examinee can see areas of weakness needing
further study. Most people find it very helpful to take practice exams. This helps them gauge their
level of understanding, identify areas that they may need to brush up on, and get used to the format of
the exam. Most commercially available study guides provide practice exams either on a CD or with access
to a website. Commercial study guides/reviews are one of the best ways to prepare for the exam. Study
guides such as NPTE Secrets Study Guide offer comprehensive reviews of material, helpful tips, hints,
and memory devices, practice questions, and general test-taking strategies. While the American Physical
Therapy Association does not endorse or recommend any particular study guide, it does maintain a list of
several guides on their website. There are also several companies and institutions that offer exam
preparation/review classes that can be taken, as well.
Probably the most important advice is “don’t procrastinate;” make time every day to study and review.
Even if it’s only an hour every morning or evening, getting into a routine of daily study is the best
strategy for ensuring success. In terms of the logistics of preparing for the exam, it is vital to make
sure that one has met all the requirements for the exam. Make sure you are eligible to take the exam,
have scheduled a time and place to take the exam, have paid all necessary fees, bring required
identification, and are well-rested for the exam.
State and National Boards
In order to become a licensed physical therapist or physical therapy assistant, those with a physical therapy degree must first pass the national board exam administered through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). There is no separate state exam needed to practice; one need only meet the eligibility requirements of the state in which he intends to become licensed and pass the national board exam. The requirements for the national board exam can be obtained from the FSBPT website: https://www.fsbpt.org/index.asp.
- The first step in taking the licensing exam is to determine eligibility requirements for the state
or territory (jurisdiction) in which one intends to practice. The candidate then registers for the
examination at the FSBPT website. The jurisdiction then approves the candidate’s eligibility and
notifies the FSBPT, which sends the candidate information on scheduling a testing time with
Prometric.The candidate can then sit for the national licensing exam at his selected Prometric testing
site. The testing site does not have to be located within the jurisdiction in which the candidate is
seeking licensure; the candidate may take the exam at any of the Prometric testing sites.
- The licensure exam is composed of 250 multiple choice questions for the physical therapist exam
and 200 questions for the physical therapy assistant exam. Of these, 50 questions are what are termed
“pretest” questions which are not actually scored for the exam. The pretest questions are items that are
being considered for use on future exams and do not affect the candidate’s score. The pretest questions
are randomly distributed throughout the exam and the candidate does not know which questions are the
pretest questions. The examinee should attempt to answer all questions, as there is no penalty for
guessing; the raw score is based on the number of correct answers. The examinee’s raw score is converted
to a scaled score between 200 and 800. This scaled score takes into consideration the difficulty of each
individual question. This is done because there are many different forms or versions of the exam.
Therefore, an individual getting 150 correct answers on a slightly more difficult version of the exam
will have a slightly higher scaled score than someone correctly answering 150 questions on a slightly
easier version of the exam. A scaled score of 600 is required to pass the exam. Because of the slightly
different versions of the exam, the number of questions required to receive a passing scaled score will
The Candidate Handbook available from the FSBPT outlines specific topics or content areas that will
be represented on both the physical therapist and physical therapy assistant exams. For example, the
most recent version of the exam contains 29 questions listed under the content area titled Clinical
Application of Foundational Sciences. Of these 29 questions, 5 relate to the cardiac, vascular and
pulmonary systems, 6 relate to the musculoskeletal system, 6 cover the neuromuscular and nervous
systems, 3 cover the integumentary system, and 9 are related to other systems. This outline should be
consulted in preparing for the exam. A similar outline exists in the handbook for the physical therapy
Continuing Education in Physical Therapy Degrees
In order to maintain licensure, most states require a minimum number of continuing education hours
for physical therapists, and some also require physical therapy assistants to participate in continuing
education. The regulations vary from state to state, but 30-40 hours biannually for physical therapists,
and 10-20 for physical therapy assistants, is not unusual. So what is continuing education and why is it
important? Continuing education is not to be confused with courses taken to earn a physical therapy degree. It is pursued by those who
have already earned a physical therapy degree and are currently practicing their profession. Continuing
education is composed of formal classes that are usually short and specific. For example, an institute
or organization may offer a one-day conference on a specific topic or technique or cover the latest
research findings and recommendations for a specific type of patient. The institute or organization that
sponsors and organizes the conference must apply to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy
(FSBPT), which will evaluate the appropriateness of the class and assign a certain number of continuing
education units or hours that can be earned by participants attending the course. Many classes providing
continuing education credits are offered at the annual meeting of the American Physical Therapy
Association. Others are sponsored by state or local physical therapy associations. Continuing education
credits can often be earned using FSBPT-approved on-line educational modules as well. These are offered
not only by professional organizations but also by many for-profit educational companies.
- The reason that continuing education is important is that it ensures that the physical therapy
professional is keeping up-to-date on current topics, methods of therapy, new approaches, and changes in
policy and guidelines and is learning new skills. The healthcare field and best practices standards are
constantly evolving and it is important that the physical therapist and physical therapy assistant
commit to being life-long learners, open to trying new techniques or methods that might benefit their
patients and keeping current with the changing field.
Each state/jurisdiction has its own requirements for continuing education. Some states require no continuing education for either physical therapists or physical therapy assistants; some require it of only physical therapists and not assistants; and others require both. The number of hours also varies by jurisdiction, with 20-40 hours per 2-year licensure period the norm.
The FSBPT maintains a web-based system called “aPTitude” (https://beta.fsbpt.net/aPTitude), which will allow professionals to track their
continuing education credits. This resource also contains information on the continuing education
requirements of each individual state/jurisdiction. The service allows professionals to search a listing
of available, approved continuing education course offerings from various vendors and other sources. The
American Physical Therapy Association website also maintains a list of continuing education classes,
including on-line courses and live conferences. In addition, there are many companies and institutions
that offer classes that can be taken for credit, either live or as home-study..
Last Updated: 02/27/2013