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How to Ace a Licensing Examination
By Lavina G. Harless, MSW, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 2 P. 20

An ASWB expert offers pointers on how test-takers can perform their best on exam day.

Social workers preparing to take an Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) licensing exam may be eager for information about what to expect and the keys to success. First and foremost, be assured that most people pass the exam on their first attempt. The secret to exam success is no secret: Being ready to test means being ready to use the social work knowledge you’ve gained through your education and experience to demonstrate your social work competence on a multiple-choice examination.

Why an Exam?
State social work regulatory boards are responsible for protecting the public, the consumers of social work services. Boards require passing an exam—along with a degree from an accredited social work program and, often, a period of supervised experience—to demonstrate that an applicant for licensure has the minimum competence to practice safely and ethically the first day on the job.

The nature of social work means that incompetent practice can harm members of the public. Consumers of social work services often do not have the option to select a social worker and cannot be expected to have the expertise to evaluate a social worker’s competence. Licensure assures clients and the public of a social worker’s competence and provides recourse when a social worker behaves unethically or incompetently. When licensing requirements include a passing score on an objective measure of competency—an exam—public protection is strengthened.

Built-in Fairness
The social work licensing examinations follow nationally recognized test development standards to ensure validity, reliability, and fairness. Exam development includes many checks and balances along the way, beginning with a major survey of thousands of social workers to determine the knowledge base and skills that these professionals must possess. The result of the survey is a set of content outlines that guide what kinds of questions belong on the exams.

Exam questions are written by licensed social workers from a multitude of backgrounds, locations, and practice settings across the United States and Canada. The question writers are trained in best practices for creating exam questions that come directly from their social work experiences and their own work with clients and client systems. Writers use the content outlines developed through the survey to create questions that effectively test a social worker’s knowledge.

Every question is reviewed by ASWB’s Examination Committee, whose members are trained to understand how to identify and guard against bias in the exams. Pairing the input of this diverse group with ongoing statistical monitoring of exam responses further helps to ensure fairness.

Even with all these steps in place, ASWB is planning to include perspectives from the major social work organizations as it builds the next version of the exams. This collaborative process will engage the full profession through a series of community-input sessions this summer. Those sessions will be followed by the launch of the Social Work Census during Social Work Month in March 2023. This expanded practice analysis survey is intended to capture information about the workforce, who social workers are, and what they do.

Steps for Taking the Exam
Because the social work exam is part of licensing, the first step is usually to contact your licensing board to apply for a social work license. Once approved, you’ll need to register with ASWB and pay for the exam. ASWB will then send you an Authorization to Test, which will let you schedule a testing appointment at a Pearson VUE test center at a convenient time and place.

If you have a need that prevents you from taking the exam under standard testing conditions, if you have a disability or other health condition, or if English is not your first language, you may be eligible to receive nonstandard testing arrangements. Prior to registering for the exam, request approval for nonstandard testing arrangements from ASWB. Should you be approved, the test center will be prepared to ensure the testing experience goes smoothly.

Detailed information on each step can be found in the ASWB Examination Candidate Handbook, available as a free download on the ASWB website.

Keys to Success
ASWB offers several resources that help candidates use their social work education to succeed on the licensing examination. For example, the ASWB Guide to the Social Work Exams features detailed information to help candidates better understand how the exam questions are written and the types of answers being sought. It also includes reference lists to help review for the exam.

The online practice test, available to registered test-takers and designed as a companion to the exam guide, simulates a real exam administration. It provides one-time access to a test made up of previously used exam questions on an online platform similar to the one used at test centers. Upon completion of the practice test, candidates will receive a score and explanations for their correct answers. Many who have used the practice test have reported that it was a key element in their study plan.

Finally, consult the exam’s content outline, which is included in the ASWB Guide to the Social Work Exams available on the ASWB website. This tool illustrates the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will need to be demonstrated on the exam.

Understanding the Examination
Each ASWB examination contains 170 multiple-choice questions. Test-takers, who are allotted four hours for the exam, can move freely through the exam, skip questions, change answers, mark questions for later attention, highlight or strike through text, and review questions. Twenty of the 170 questions are being pretested for possible use on a future examination and won’t affect exam scores.

While ASWB licensing exam questions are designed to avoid tricks that might fool test-takers, understanding how questions are constructed can increase the chances for success. Questions fall into two categories: a direct question/incomplete statement or a vignette, a short scenario that leads to a question.

The first type usually requires the test-taker to remember specific information. These questions, which are typically straightforward, pertain to information learned during social work education.

The majority of questions contain vignettes. These situations might seem specific to a particular practice setting, but they test universal skills and abilities. Typically, these questions require the use of critical thinking to identify the correct action a social worker should take.

Pay close attention to any qualifier set in all capital letters and a bold font style. For example, BEST, FIRST, and NEXT. They bring more specificity to the question, helping candidates to focus on identifying the one correct answer. Consider them carefully when choosing an answer.

ASWB examinations never have questions with options such as “All of the above,” “None of the above,” or “A and D.” Every question is as simply worded as possible, with only one correct answer. A readability study showed that the examinations read at the same level as 10th-grade textbooks—except for the social work terminology.

Also, remember that each question is targeted to a specific knowledge, skill, or ability. This means that an individual exam question is designed to measure a separate piece of competence. Each question contains all the necessary information needed to answer it correctly—social work knowledge notwithstanding. In other words, be extremely careful not to “read into” an exam question or allow hypothetical situations or scenarios to cloud your ability to arrive at the correct answer.

Creating a Review Plan
As you organize a study plan, focus on what worked well for you in college or graduate school. Create a customized plan grounded in your exam’s content outlines and references that will meet your timeline and maximize your learning preferences. To get a feel for any areas that require special attention, be sure to keep the content outline handy.

Include specific topics and a timetable for reviewing the materials. Following a structured plan will reacquaint test-takers with the content they’ll be tested on and reduce anxiety that might get in the way of optimum performance. Also consider forming an in-person or online study group with fellow test-takers.

No Tricks, No Games
The ASWB examinations do not rely on tricks, gimmicks, or word games. They are purposefully designed to measure knowledge, skills, and abilities relevant to safe social work practice—not to confuse test-takers. Putting energy into figuring out tricks to beat the exam is a waste of time.

A Note on Preparation Courses
Some test-takers pay for test preparation courses and materials sold by private companies. It may seem reasonable to think that the best way to prepare is to review hundreds of practice questions or to memorize a test preparation company’s list of terms and concepts. While these courses may provide useful resources, be aware that ASWB has no relationship with any test preparation companies or courses. Practice questions may not resemble real exam questions. Therefore, ASWB recommends building a customized review plan that uses the association’s resources.

Exam Day
Eventually, the big day arrives. Your preparation is complete, and you’re headed to the test center. At this point, the key is to maximize your potential by minimizing surprises and staying centered.

The following are a few helpful tips to accomplish this goal:

• Practice self-care. Part of your social work education has been learning about techniques for managing stress. Getting a good night’s sleep, maintaining good nutrition habits, and taking time for mindful relaxation can contribute to success on exam day.

• Scout the test center’s location. It’s a good idea to visit the test center location before exam day to get a lay of the land, including where to park and how long it will take to get there. Test-takers must arrive 30 minutes before their appointment time.

• Wear comfortable clothes and dress in layers.

• Consider leaving most personal items at home. You may be asked to remove large jewelry, watches, etc.

• Even if you believe they aren’t necessary, request earplugs from test center staff. This will help minimize distractions from other test-takers entering and leaving the testing room.

• Pay attention to the on-screen tutorial. Make sure you are familiar with the testing software before you begin the test.

• Take your time. Nearly all test-takers use less than the full four hours. Using ASWB’s online practice test can help you get a sense of the right pace for moving through the exam.

• Make a series of passes through the examination. The exam software allows highlighting of text, so you can easily go through the exam more than once.

Coming Soon
ASWB recognizes the important role that social work education programs have in preparing students for practice. Therefore, beginning in August, the organization will offer social work educators a collection of exam resources to increase access to exam information.

These new resources include performance data on graduates, online question-writing training for educators, and an updated list of core references in the new ASWB Examination Guidebook. They will also include a course guide to accompany the Group Review Practice Test and a set of retired exam questions for use in the classroom.

Because ASWB believes that financial concerns should not pose barriers to effective test preparation, the association is committed to providing these resources to educators for free.

A Final Word
There’s no denying that taking a licensing examination can be stressful. The best way to overcome that hurdle is to minimize uncertainty and demystify the process as much as possible. Being ready on exam day isn’t just about the exam questions themselves—it also helps to have a thorough understanding of how the exam works and the logistics of its administration. Taking a measured, comprehensive approach can make the difference in your ability to let yourself shine come test day.

— Lavina G. Harless, MSW, LCSW, serves as senior director of examination services for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), where she has worked since 2005. She oversees development and administration of the social work licensing examinations used in the United States and Canada. Under her leadership, ASWB is expanding its research-driven exam development process to bring in more perspectives, including those of individuals representing diverse racial, social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds.


Examination Security & Confidentiality
It’s important to remember that the Association of Social Work Boards’ (ASWB) social work licensing examinations are high-stakes exams that can affect a person’s ability to practice social work. Therefore, exam security is taken very seriously. Violating exam security is a serious offense, and ASWB strictly enforces security measures at its examination sites. Rules and procedures help ASWB and Pearson VUE provide a secure testing environment and a reliable examination program.

Examination security measures include the following:

• maintaining different versions (forms) of the exam so no one takes the same exam twice;

• requiring identification;

• scanning test-takers’ palms;

• signing the Candidate Rules Agreement;

• signing the Confidentiality Statement agreeing not to share information about exam questions with anyone at any time;

• limiting personal items taken into the testing room; and

• video and audio monitoring at the test center.

Any suspected violations of exam security and confidentiality, as well as other irregularities, are reported to Pearson VUE and ASWB for investigation. Test-takers who are found to have violated security measures will have their examination scores invalidated, will be reported to their board, and face the possibility of a range of administrative, civil, and criminal charges.