Dental Assistant Certification & Registration - CDA, RDA (AMT), NELDA

Certification as a dental assistant is desirable on several fronts. First, it provides assurance of a candidate’s knowledge of the field and ability to perform required tasks. Secondly, it sends the message that an applicant is committed to the field and has a demonstrated level of expertise. And finally, the certification process of renewal and eligibility sets the stage for lifelong learning and continued professional excellence.

Once candidates have successfully completed an accredited dental assisting program, they are eligible to take a certification exam to demonstrate their learning. To become certified at the national level, most dental assistants take the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam. Assistants that have received on-the-job training or completed non-accredited educational programs are eligible to take the CDA exam after working for two years as full-time dental assistants. Other national exams for dental assisting include the RDA and NELDA.

In addition to national certification, an individual’s state of residence may have its own certification examinations, registration, and/or licensing requirements. States may recognize components of the national exam for some of these purposes. However, they may have additional requirements for specific aspects of the professional scope of dental assisting.

Read on for a complete guide to dental assistant certification and registration.

National Certification – CDA, RDA, NELDA

Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) Certification

The Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam administered by DANB has three components: general chairside assisting (GC), radiation health and safety (RHS), and infection control (ICE). An outline of each exam is provided on the DANB website, as well as information on the DALE (Dental Auxiliary Learning and Education) foundation review courses and practice tests and tips on exam preparation.

There are three pathways to becoming eligible for the CDA exam:

  • The first requires applicants to have graduated from a CODA-accredited dental assisting program, and be in possession of a current CPR certification from a DANB-approved provider. (CODA is the Commission on Dental Accreditation.)
  • The second pathway is for candidates with a high school diploma, 3,500 hours of corresponding work experience, and current CPR certification.
  • Thirdly, candidates with former DANB-CDA status, a degree from a CODA-accredited DDS or DMD program (or international dental program), and current CPR certification.

A list of CPR course providers accepted by DANB can be found on their website. The cost of the CDA exam is $450 for traditional candidates and $425 for active military.

National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) Certification

The National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) exam is also administered by DANB and comprises three parts: anatomy, morphology, and physiology (AMP); infection control (ICE); and radiation health and safety (RHS).

Four pathways to eligibility for the NELDA include:

  • Graduation from an accredited dental assisting program; high school graduation (or GED); and current CPR, BLS (Basic Life Support), or ACLS (Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support) certification
  • Graduation from a US Department of Labor Job Corps dental assisting program and current CPR, BLS, or ACLS certification
  • Completion of a dental assisting program within a high school and current CPR, BLS, or ACLS certification
  • High school diploma (or GED); 300 to 3,000 hours of dental assisting experience accrued in two months (minimum) to three years (maximum) time verifiable by a licensed dentist; and current CPR, BLS, or ACLS certification

The cost of the NELDA exam is $400 for traditional candidates and $380 for active military personnel.

Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) Certification

The Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) credential is awarded by the private certification organization, American Medical Technologists (AMT), and taken in addition to any state licensing or regulatory requirements.

The purpose of this exam is to demonstrate entry-level competence in basic dental assisting duties; it does not qualify candidates, however, for any advanced procedures or expanded functions in the role of dental assisting. AMT also provides mentoring and job search support to those seeking certification.

Eligibility for the RDA(AMT) exam includes current CPR training that includes a theoretical and in-person demonstration of CPR competencies. Eligibility entails one of the following:

  • Graduation from an accredited dental assisting program,
  • Completion of a military dental assisting program and one year of work experience in the profession
  • Three years (5,250 hours) of dental assisting work experience and a recommendation for a current or former dentist or employer.

The RDA is offered in both computer-based and paper formats. The cost of the RDA exam is $135.

Dental Assistant Certification Renewals

Annual DANBE recertification (CDA and NELDA holders) entails maintenance of current CPR, BLS, or ACLS credentials; completion of continuing dental education (CDE) credits; and submission of a renewal application and fee. The number of continuing education credits required and the cost of renewal vary according to the number of certifications being renewed. Certification holders must renew their credentials within three months of expiration. For those with one certification to renew, the annual fee is $75.

Once a registered dental assistant (RDA) has become certified with AMT, they become an “active certified member” in the organization. Members pay an annual fee, earn a requisite number of professional development “points”, and comply with AMT standards of practice. The annual renewal fee for maintaining the RDA certification is $60.

Individuals who do not fulfill these three aspects of membership may retake the exam to regain their certified member status and continue to benefit from member activities. Examples of such benefits are continuing education (e.g., an annual convention, state-society meetings, and seminars, access to the Journal of Continuing Education Topics & Issues and Events, online continuing education programs, on-demand courses), free online career services, leadership opportunities, and awards and scholarships through the AMT Institute for Excellence.

State Certification for Dental Assistants

States vary in their registration, licensing, and certification requirements for dental assistants. Check with the dental board in your state for current information on how to become a registered dental assistant with the legal right to perform the tasks you learned in your education program.

For example, to work as a registered dental assistant in the state of California, candidates must apply for a license from the Dental Board of California. The process includes qualifying to take the California RDA exam and completing an application and paying off the $120 fee.

To demonstrate eligibility for the exam, applicants must:

  • Either complete a Board-approved RDA program; have 15 months of work experience as a dental assistant with a licensed dentist in the US; or participate in an approved four-month dental assisting program and 11 months of work experience
  • Complete a Board-approved coronal polishing and radiation safety course
  • Provide proof of completion of a Board-approved Dental Practice Act course, an eight-hour board-approved infection control course, and a course in basic life support by the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association within the past five years
  • Demonstrate satisfactory performance on the registered dental assistant combined written and law and ethics examination
  • Submit fingerprint clearance from the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigations

Upon qualification, applicants take a three-part exam including 1) a hands-on practical exam performed on a typodont; 2) a computerized written general knowledge exam; and 3) a computerized law and ethics written exam.

Renewal is every two years, based on an applicant’s birth month and year. However, depending on the date of initial licensure, the first renewal may need to be done before two years.

For “active” renewals, applicants must complete a renewal form, pay the associated $100 fee, submit a dental healthcare workforce survey, complete 25 continuing education credits, and disclose any disciplinary actions received. Renewals done online are immediate and licenses are received within two weeks. Those done by mail may take four to six weeks.

Cevia Yellin
Cevia Yellin Writer

Cevia Yellin is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. She studied English and French literature as an undergraduate. After serving two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, she earned her master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cevia's travels and experiences working with students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have contributed to her interest in the forces that shape identity. She grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, where her mom still lives in her childhood home.