Putting Social Work Values to the Test — ASWB’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The role of the Association of Social Work Boards is to maintain the high quality and rigor of social work licensing exams, but it is also tasked with ensuring that social work’s mission, values, and ethics are reflected in the exams.
The licensing examinations for social workers across the country assess competencies in a wide range of areas, including the profession’s values embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. But can those values be lived out in the process of creating the tests? As a social worker who oversees development of our profession’s licensing examinations, I believe the answer is yes.
“The role of the Association of Social Work Boards examination program is to identify and assess knowledge that entry-level social workers need to demonstrate to ensure that the public is protected. That includes knowledge about cultural competency and ethics,” says ASWB Chief Operating Officer Dwight Hymans, MSW, LCSW. “We strive to carry out these tasks in a way that reflects the very values and ethics we are testing.”
While ASWB’s core mission is to provide services to the regulatory community to protect the public from incompetent and unethical practice, its signature service is examination development. In providing this service, ASWB also aims to adhere to the core values of the profession while it carries out that mission (ASWB, 2018b). Just as the social work profession promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion in society, ASWB strives to embrace those values as it creates and administers the social work licensing examinations.
Touchpoints exist at every step of the examination development process to ensure fairness for test-takers and to make real ASWB’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The Practice Analysis
The survey responses serve as the building blocks of the final examination blueprints, the content outlines for the licensing exams. The path from survey analysis to final blueprint publication is further strengthened by a panel of subject matter experts representing a diverse range of demographics, practice settings, and geography.
Roxroy Reid, PhD, MSW, LCSW, who currently serves on ASWB’s board of directors, says his work with examination development as a member of the 2009 practice analysis task force opened his eyes to the thoroughness of the practice analysis. “The process has rigorous psychometric requirements that must be followed, and the task force was able to balance that with our social work subject matter expertise,” Reid says. “Having a demographically diverse task force of social workers involved helped to ensure that the practice analysis not only captured the breadth of professional social work activities but [also] the breadth of the social workers actually performing those activities.”
Item Writing and Approval
Once an item is written, it is evaluated by multiple reviewers, beginning with item development consultants, who are seasoned academicians and/or practitioners. They are selected in part for their ability to ensure that the profession’s values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are upheld in every test question, even when the question does not directly test knowledge of those values. Once items are approved by the consultants, they are reviewed by the ASWB examination committee, a panel of subject matter experts carefully selected to ensure diversity across a range of factors, including demographics and practice settings (ASWB, 2019). The panels work through each item individually and must reach consensus for an item to move into approved status.
Pretesting and Ongoing Analysis
That monitoring includes analysis of whether a pretest question advantages or disadvantages one subgroup of test-takers by showing differential item functioning (DIF). Items are also measured to determine whether high-performing, mid-performing, and low-performing candidates across measurable demographic groups are answering individual items correctly at similar rates.
After enough data are gathered, pretest items that fail to meet standards—including those that show DIF and may demonstrate bias—are returned to the examination committee for review and analysis. The committee may decide to further edit the item—in which case it must begin the pretest process all over again—or remove it from the bank of active items. When an item is edited and returned for another pretest audition, it must meet the same statistical goal as before—there are no shortcuts (ASWB, 2018a, p. 10).
Monitoring of item performance doesn’t end once an item moves out of pretest status. Scored items are continually monitored to ensure that performance doesn’t slip. If a scored item demonstrates a statistically significant drop in performance, it is taken out of use and returned to the examination committee for review. Should the committee decide to edit and keep the item, it returns to pretest status.
ASWB and the Testing Industry
Thorough subject matter expert review is one process that sets the ASWB exams apart from other similar exams, according to senior scientist Gordon Waugh, PhD, ASWB’s psychometric consultant at Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO). He says, “ASWB’s test development is essentially equivalent with other professional testing organizations; however, ASWB does tend to gather more information on its tests than most other examination programs. Activities such as its detailed quarterly reporting of test results and item statistics, special studies, and thorough subject matter expert review of new items and items with poor pretest statistics are not typical.”
Another senior scientist at HumRRO, Kevin Bradley, PhD, the industrial organizational psychologist who served as the project manager for ASWB’s 2016 practice analysis, sees ASWB’s attention to individual test question construction as a key tool in its development of reliable and fair examinations.
“One of the most widely accepted strategies to help ensure fairness in testing is to minimize what we in the psychometrics world call ‘construct-irrelevant variance,’ basically, the term for what happens when a test question gives some candidates an advantage if they possess irrelevant knowledge,” Bradley says. An example might be a question that requires social work knowledge but uses a sports analogy. “Test-takers who are sports fans would have an unfair advantage because they possess construct-irrelevant knowledge.”
That’s an obvious example. In reality, the presence of construct-irrelevant knowledge can be much more subtle, requiring a self-aware, strategic approach to test development. Bradley adds that ASWB minimizes construct-irrelevant variance throughout its test development process. “And for ASWB, that strategy involves including subject matter experts from all segments of the social work population,” he says.
Both Bradley and Waugh note that ASWB goes to extra lengths to root out construct-irrelevant variance. “For example, ASWB recently commissioned an analysis of the examinations’ reading levels to ensure that test questions weren’t being written at a complexity level that exceeds what’s required in practice,” Bradley says. “That additional scrutiny adds to ASWB’s tools to minimize the possibility that one segment of test-takers has an advantage over other segments based on factors other than their social work knowledge.”
Attention to Diversity
Gatekeepers of the Profession: A Perspective
I believe it’s the same lens that should be applied to all the gatekeeping processes associated with our profession and beyond. As members of the social work profession, we know that questions about equality and fairness must be a part of the conversation in the widest possible context.
Ultimately, licensing examination programs have a limited scope. They are meant to evaluate minimum competence for safe practice on Day One of the job, alongside other measures that include education and experience. They are, in a sense, snapshots in time of competence. The social work licensing exams cannot serve as outcome measures for social work education, nor can they verify excellence in a particular area of practice. In other words, passing the social work licensing exam cannot substitute for the learning required to be a social worker, nor for the skills we gain through hard-earned experience. In the end, the exams are only a small part of a much bigger picture.
The same is true when it comes to our profession’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. An examination cannot fix a broader societal issue, though it serves as a mirror that can reflect those issues. Its creators can and should do everything possible to ensure that the exam operates according to the profession’s values. That obligation is made clear in our Code of Ethics, which directs us to, among other things, “promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, [and] advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence” (NASW, 2017, 6.04).
In that and multiple other passages, our code makes it clear that social workers should promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and around the world. This demands a holistic approach, one in which all stakeholders—including testing organizations, educational programs, and professional associations—look carefully at what they are doing within their own spheres. All must acknowledge the need to address their own piece of a much larger issue and accept the opportunity for leadership in the social work community and the larger society. After all, creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive profession requires working toward creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society. ASWB is intent on doing its part.
Mary Jo Monahan, MSW, LCSW, CEO of ASWB, put it this way: “Social workers are especially well placed to understand that our society’s journey toward equity is not yet complete, but we are committed to helping make progress in that direction. ASWB takes seriously the goal of moving the social work profession toward greater inclusion, diversity, and equity.”
— Lavina Harless, MSW, LCSW, is director of examination development for the Association of Social Work Boards.
Association of Social Work Boards. (2018a). ASWB guide to the social work exams (2nd ed.). Association of Social Work Boards.
Association of Social Work Boards. (2018b). Strategic framework 2019–2021. Retrieved from https://www.aswb.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/strategic-framework.pdf
Association of Social Work Boards. (2019). Examination program 2019 yearbook. Retrieved from https://www.aswb.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/2019-Yearbook.pdf
National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
For social workers, emergency orders are being issued by states to reduce barriers and provide the public with additional access to care. The regulatory provisions page has date-stamped information about the current status of these emergency orders by state. If a state is not listed, there are no emergency provisions as of the date listed. Social workers should go directly to their state board to get the most accurate information and to review the legal and regulatory language specific to social work for their jurisdiction. Our laws and regs database (aswbsocialworkregulations.org/licensingWebsitesReportBuilder.jsp) provides links to all United States and Canadian regulatory boards
— Source: ASWB