The Certified Dental Assistant Exam (CDA)

Preparing for the CDA ExamNo matter how many years you’ve been a practicing dental assistant, you should plan to spend several weeks preparing for the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam. If you take the entire exam in one sitting, (all three components), you will be answering more than 300 questions. The exam is sure to contain some information that you may not be very familiar with, perhaps because you specialize in a certain type of patient or care. In order to pass any test, but especially one as extensive as the CDA, you need to spend a lot of time studying.

How to Choose Study Materials

If you’ve taken the time to read the CDA Application Packet published by the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB), then you already know that the DANB provides a listing of the textbooks used to develop the exam. The list includes almost 30 textbooks, websites, and other sources. If you were to purchase all of the textbooks, you would be spending quite a lot of money. Also, the DANB explains that reading every textbook and source material listed is no guarantee that you’ll pass the exam. Therefore, especially if you are working with a limited budget, you need to be choosy about the books and materials you choose to use to help you prepare for the exam.

A combination of several different sources such as one or two of the textbooks plus a few study guides, practice exams, and flashcards should prove to be the most efficient and effective means of preparation. You can also choose to take a review course, especially if you are still attending an academic program or you just completed one. But which of these materials should you purchase?

There are several ways to make the decision. If you currently attending an educational program or you just graduated from one, ask your instructors which study guides, practice exams, and other materials would be most beneficial to you. While they cannot endorse specific products, they can tell you what these items should contain or what to look for. They can also let you know if a review course is available at your school and when you can attend it.

If you’ve been working as a dental assistant for some time and asking educators isn’t an option, you should check with other dental assistants who have already taken and passed the exam. Ask them which materials worked for them. If you don’t know any dental assistants who have recently taken the exam and you must purchase tools without others’ input, make sure to do your research. The company you order from should have a good reputation and it should have been in business for several years. You can check with the Better Business Bureau in the city and state where the company is located to make sure they have a good reputation. You can also ask other dental assistants online about specific study guides and materials. Since everyone learns a bit differently, keep in mind that not all material will work for you. That’s why purchasing a combination of different tools will work best. Here are some of the study tools available to help you prepare for the CDA exam:

  • Textbooks (see list in CDA Application Packet)
  • Study Guides (available for purchase online)
  • Practice Exams
  • Review Courses (including DANB online review courses)
  • Study Groups
  • Flashcards

As soon as you’ve chosen your study tools, make sure to develop a study plan, including when you plan to study every week. Your plan should also include taking the practice exams at least a few times throughout your preparation timeframe. Study groups can save you time and hold you accountable, while flashcards can help you memorize important terms. Remember to use a combination of tools and allow plenty of time to prepare for the exam.

Eligibility Requirements for Taking the CDA Exam

In many states parts or all of the certified dental assistant (CDA) exam offered by the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB) are recognized by state boards of licensing as part of the state’s requirements for licensing. Whether you are living in one of those states or not, becoming a certified dental assistant may be a very good idea because more employers are looking for CDAs to fill open positions. This is because CDAs have passed an exam that proves to employers that they have the basic skills and knowledge needed to provide effective dental care to their patients. However, there are strict requirements that you must meet in order to take the exam.

Determining Eligibility

There are three exams that you must take and pass in order to become a CDA: the Radiation Health and Safety Exam (RHS); the Infection Control Exam (ICE); and the General Chairside Assisting Exam (GC). There are no eligibility requirements associated with the RHS and ICE exams. A dental assistant may take them and if she passes them, this proves her competency in these areas. However, there are eligibility requirements for the GC exam, and there are three ways to become eligible.

In the first method of becoming eligible, the exam candidate is a recent graduate (or expects to graduate) from a Commission on Dental Accreditation-accredited program in the field of dental assistant or dental hygienist. In this method, you will need to provide evidence that you have graduated from the program (a copy of your diploma or original, certified copy of transcript). If you haven’t graduated yet but will soon, you must submit an Intent to Graduate letter on the school’s letterhead. The program director needs to confirm that you will graduate from their program within 90 days of applying to take the exam. In addition to these items, you will also need to provide a current CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certificate.

If you have not completed an educational dental assistant or dental hygienist program (or you aren’t expecting to graduate from one soon), you can take the GC exam if you have a high school diploma and have worked at least two years as a full-time dental assistant or four years as a part-time dental assistant. You have to have worked at least 3,500 hours during that timeframe. Your employer will need to complete an Employer Work Experience statement that is provided by the DANB in its CDA Application Packet. This packet is available for download at the DANB web site. You also need to provide a high school diploma and a current CPR certificate.

The third method for obtaining eligibility for the GC exam is to prove that you were previously certified, or you are a D.D.S. or D.M.D. In this method you will need to provide diplomas or certifications proving that you were certified or are a D.D.S. or D.M.D. plus your current CPR certificate.

Keep in mind that your CPR certificate needs to be from an organization recognized by the DANB such as the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association, or the Emergency Care and Safety Institute. A complete list of the agencies recognized by the DANB is in the CDA Application Packet.

Cost of taking the CDA Exam

You may choose to take each of the three exams separately, or all at once. If you choose to take the RHS and ICE exams separately, you will have five years to complete them as well as the GC exam and earn your CDA. However, the least expensive way to earn your CDA is by taking all three exams at the same time. The fee for traditional candidates to do this is $375.00. Military personnel are given a discount, and their fee is $350.00. To take the GC exam costs $200 and to take either the RHS or the ICE exams costs $175.00 each. If you choose to take the RHS and ICE together, the cost for doing so is $250.00.

The CDA Application Process

Like most applications for certification, the process can be complicated. It’s important for all candidates interested in taking the certified dental assistant (CDA) exam to get as much information as possible so that they carefully follow all instructions and turn in their applications within the deadline. It’s important to begin the application process at least four to six weeks prior to when you want to take the exam so that if there are any questions or additional documentation is needed, you will have time to gather everything and still meet the date you wish to take the exam. The good news for CDA candidates is that there are no application deadlines for the CDA or any of its component exams, so your personal deadline will be the date you wish to take the exam.

Step One

The first step you need to take in the application process is to download and read the CDA Application Packet that is available at the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB) web site. You may be tempted not to read this 34-page document in its entirety, but that would be a mistake. It contains most if not all of the information you need to know to successfully apply for the CDA and for the entire application process to go smoothly. Make sure you take the time to read through it.

Step Two

The second step in the application process is to determine which eligibility path will work for you, as explained above.

Once you’ve determined your eligibility, you will need to gather all of the information that is required to complete the application. This will include proof of your chosen eligibility path (in other words diploma from an accredited dental assistant program, high school diploma, proof of work hours, etc.) as well as a current CPR certificate from an organization recognized by the DANB such as the American Red Cross. A complete list of these organizations is included in the Application Packet.

Be sure to read the Application Packet to make sure you have gathered all the necessary documentation you’ll need to apply for the CDA. If you plan to take the RHS and ICE exams separately, there are no prerequisites, and so you won’t need to send in any supporting documents.

Step Three

The third step in the process is to complete the application form that is included in the CDA Application Packet. You will need to include a check or credit card information with the application for payment for the exam. The DANB has contracted with Pearson VUE to administer the computerized CDA exams. You will need to schedule your exams through Pearson VUE. The Application Packet includes a complete list of Pearson VUE locations. An unofficial notification of passing or failing will be given to candidates upon completing the exam. The DANB will then notify the candidates within three to four weeks after the exam was taken with official results. If the candidate passed all three components of the CDA exam he or she will receive his or her certificate with the results.

Who needs to take the CDA exam and what does the exam cover

The certified dental assistant (CDA) exam is developed and administered by the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc (DANB). This exam is designed to test the basic competencies of dental assistants, whether they provide general dentistry assistance, or more specialized assistance such as orthodonture assistance or preventive dental care. Currently, 38 state boards of dentistry in the United States recognize the CDA exam, as well as the District of Columbia. In these 38 states, you must take at least one component or more of the CDA exam in order to be a licensed dental assistant.

Any dental assistant who wants to prove his or her competency on the job should consider taking the CDA exam. Not only could having the certification lead to obtaining a dental assistant position, but it also gives you confidence that you have the most up-to-date and important knowledge of dental assistance available today. This means you will be able to provide effective dental care to your patients.

About the CDA Exam

The CDA exam is actually composed of three separate exams that you will need to take and pass. Below is more information about each of the three exams. Keep in mind that you can find a great deal of information about the CDA exam in a document available on the DANB website called CDA Exam Application Packet. This packet includes the application, professional code of conduct you will be expected to adhere to, as well as test information. The Exam Application Packet is updated on a yearly basis. You should plan to access this document and read it thoroughly before proceeding with the application.

  • Component 1: Radiation, Health, and Safety
    The first exam you will need to take as part of the CDA is the Radiation, Health, and Safety exam (RHS). This exam is composed of 100 multiple choice questions. This test covers the health and safety concerns associated with radiology tests and equipment used in most dental practices. It ensures that you have the knowledge you need to keep you safe, as well as your patients. There are no prerequisites for taking the RHS component, so you will not need to turn in any documentation with the application for the exam. You will have five years after taking and passing this component to complete the other two components and earn your CDA certification. You also have the option to take and pass the exam as a separate competency, without completing the CDA certification.
  • Component 2: Infection Control
    The second component of the CDA is the Infection Control Exam (ICE). In this second exam you will be answering 100 multiple choice questions that will demonstrate your competence on the topic of infection control. Infection control is an important topic not just for the protection of patients, but also for your protection as well. Dental assistants who pass the ICE can use this component toward the CDA as well as the certified orthodontic assistant (COA) designation.

Similar to the RHS exam, there are no prerequisites you must complete in order to take the ICE. And you will have five years upon taking the test to complete the RHS and the third component to earn your CDA certification.

  • Component 3: General Chairside
    The third and final exam you will need to take and pass in order to become a certified dental assistant is the general chairside test. This test contains 120 multiple choice questions covering general tasks you will need to be competent in at the dentist’s chairside. You will need to prove your eligibility before you can take this final component. There are five different ways to become eligible for the exam. Eligibility details are provided in the Exam Application Packet as well as the article on this site titled Eligibility Requirements for the CDA Exam.

What the CDA Exam Covers

What the CDA Exam CoversThe CDA exam is actually three exams in one: the Radiology Health and Safety exam (RHS); the Infection Control Exam (ICE); and the General Chairside exam (GC). Each exam can be taken independently of the others, although it is less expensive for candidates to take the entire CDA exam (all three components) at one time. Each test focuses exclusively on its topic, and contains more than 100 questions. The Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB) provides comprehensive information about the CDA exam as well as its other exams, through its “blueprints” provided on the organization’s web site. You should plan to visit the site and read the blueprints to get complete information about the exam. Here is an overview of what each exam covers.

Radiology Health and Safety Exam

This exam tests the candidate’s knowledge of radiology including what type of radiology should be used to achieve a target result and how to limit exposure to the patients as well as to the dental assistant. There is no prerequisite to take this exam, and candidates have five years to complete the other two exams and earn the CDA designation. Here is a breakdown of the items that appear on the RHS exam:

  1. Expose and Evaluate (37 percent of test questions)
  2. Process (16 percent of test questions)
  3. Mount and Label (11 percent of test questions)
  4. Radiation Safety: Patient (24 percent of test questions)
  5. Radiation Safety: Self and Others (12 percent of test questions)

Infection Control Exam

The goal of this exam is to ensure that dental assistants understand how to prevent and control the spread of infections to other patients, self, and others in the facility. There is no prerequisite to take this exam, and candidates have five years to complete the other two exams and earn the CDA designation. Here is a breakdown of what the exam covers:

  1. Patient and Dental Health Care Worker Education (10 percent of test questions)
  2. Standard/Universal Precautions and Prevention of Disease Transmission (60 percent of test questions ): A. Prevent cross-contamination and disease transmission, 20 percent; B. Maintain aseptic conditions, 10 percent; C. Perform sterilization procedures, 15 percent; D. Environmental Asepsis, 15 percent.
  3. Occupational safety (30 percent of test questions)

General Chairside Exam

This third exam is designed to test candidates’ knowledge of the everyday tasks and procedures conducted chairside, and which dental assistants are required to take part in. These range from collecting and recording clinical data, to dentistry techniques, and to performing or assisting with dental procedures. There are eligibility requirements that must be met before candidates can apply to take this exam. These requirements are listed in the CDA Application Packet, as well as an article on this site titled “Eligibility Requirements for Taking the CDA Exam.” Here is a breakdown of what the GC exam covers:

  1. Collecting and reporting clinical data (10 percent of test questions)
  2. Chairside dental procedures (45 percent of test questions): A. Four-handed dentistry techniques; B. Selection and Preparation of Armamentarium; C. Perform or assist with intraoral procedures; D. Patient Management.
  3. Chairside dental materials (preparation, manipulation, application) (11 percent of test questions)
  4. Lab materials and procedures (4 percent of test questions)
  5. Patient education and oral health management (10 percent of test questions)
  6. Prevention and management of oral emergencies (14 percent of test questions)
  7. Office operations (6 percent of test questions)

This is just a brief overview of what each exam is designed to assess and what topics are covered. For a more detailed listing of what the exams cover, be sure to visit the DANB web site and view the pdf file that provides a complete “blueprint” of the CDA exam and all of its components.

CDA Test Results and What they Mean

After you complete the certified dental assistant (CDA exam), you will receive unofficial results from the Pearson VUE test site letting you know whether you passed the exam or failed it. Remember, these are unofficial results. After three to four weeks, the Dental Assisting National Board, Inc. (DANB) will provide you with the official results, including your score on all three exams (the Radiology Health and Safety Exam, the Infection Control Exam, and the General Chairside exam). The DANB scaled scores range from a low of 100 to a high of 900, with 400 being required to pass each of the three exams. The DANB also provides you with subtest performance ratings so that you’ll know, in case you didn’t pass one or more of the exams, what areas you did well in, and which you need to continue to study for when you retake the exam. Subtest scores are rated as low average, average, or high average.

CDA Test Results and What they MeanSome candidates wonder how many questions they need to answer correctly before they pass the exam. There is no one answer to that question. The DANB, through its board of directors, has determined a baseline knowledge that dental assistants must have in each of the exam areas. The questions become more difficult in each topic area to assess whether the candidate has the knowledge required. Once the computer determines that the candidate does have that level of knowledge, he or she has passed that area.

Since the CDA is composed of three different exams, the Radiology Health and Safety exam (RHS), the Infection Control Exam (ICE), and the General Chairside Exam (GC), it is possible for candidates to fail just one or two of the exams. If that occurs, you do not need to take all three exams again; instead, you will just need to retake the exam(s) that you failed. You will, however, need to apply for each of the exams as you did the first time you applied for the CDA, filling out the application and providing any necessary documentation (as required for the GC exam). You will also need to pay the appropriate fee for the exam(s) you are retaking.

It’s important to remember that in several states you are required to pass one or more of the CDA components in order to receive your license to practice as a dental assistant. If you live in one of these states and you fail one of the necessary components more than once, your state board of licensing may require you to attend dental assistant classes. You should check with your state board of licensing for this information.

You should also know that your employer will not be notified of your scores. However, your passing or failing status is a matter of public record, so anyone who requests to know your status will be able to receive it.

You can also appeal a DANB decision or test question, if you feel something about a test question was not appropriately communicated or for other reasons. The DANB provides information on its appeal procedure at its web site.


Last Updated: 08/20/2013

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