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Spring 2024 Issue

Licensure: The Future of the Social Work Licensing Exams
By Lavina Harless, MSW, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 2 P. 32

The field of social work has always valued inclusion, seeking to provide support and services to individuals and communities, whoever and wherever they may be. As part of its broader organizational values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), a membership association composed of 64 state and provincial social work regulatory bodies, is committed to ensuring that the professional licensing exams for social workers reflect current practice and a changing workforce.

ASWB is undertaking a multiyear, multipronged process to update the competence assessments that social workers in the United States and Canada are required to pass to become licensed professionals. As in other professions, being licensed provides legitimacy and protection to social workers and the communities they serve.

ASWB developed and administered the first social work licensing exams in 1983 and has been responsible for the exam program ever since. Last year, more than 70,000 people took an ASWB social work licensing exam. ASWB regularly reviews and revises the exams to ensure that they reflect current practice. As it develops the next assessment—to be informed by the Social Work Census now underway—ASWB is leading an even more inclusive process to ensure that the social work licensing competence measurements are aligned with the future of the profession.

A Key Piece of the Licensure Process
The social work exams are a key component of the overall professional system that educates, licenses, and regulates social workers. Across the United States and Canada, this system typically includes social work education, supervised experience, and an exam. ASWB’s competence assessments—which include five exams for the different categories of practice—are the only objective component of the licensure system, ensuring that social workers have the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to safely, ethically, and competently serve their clients, starting on day one.

ASWB supports both professional standing and public protection by developing and administering social work licensing exams that meet rigorous standards and that are relevant to and reflective of current social work practice. ASWB has put in place a system of checks and balances to ensure that its exams are reliable, valid, and fair. It’s established a comprehensive process over the more than 40 years it’s been responsible for the exam program. ASWB applies psychometric analyses, following standards set by the American Psychological Association, the Joint Commission on Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education.

In developing the next iteration of the assessments, ASWB is building upon its already robust process. Aligning with an organizational commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion—and in response to the disparities that were identified in its analysis of exam pass rates in 2022—ASWB has focused on increasing inclusion in a number of ways. Working with key research partners, it’s launched initiatives to make the exams more inclusive than ever before. Among these initiatives are updates to the exam development process, to the content and structure of the assessment, and to accessibility for licensure candidates.

An Expanded Assessment Development Process
In developing the assessments, ASWB has partnered with the Human Resources Research Organization and The CODE Group to collect input from a larger and more diverse group of participants than ever before. Through a series of Community Conversations, more than 600 individuals from across the United States offered valuable perspectives. They provided insight into the existing examinations, including some of the current burdens felt by test takers, such as the time, money, and anxiety involved in taking exams. They also offered helpful suggestions on how to improve the experience for test takers, which ASWB is integrating into the development of the 2026 assessments.

ASWB has also invested in a large-scale workforce survey, called the Social Work Census, to better understand who social workers are and what they do. Launched on March 1, 2024, the census is collecting input from a wide range of social workers, both licensed and unlicensed, and is serving two functions: an analysis of the practice of social work and a workforce study.

The practice analysis is a survey of practicing social workers that determines the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be included in the updated competence assessments. To inform the census, ASWB has expanded its Practice Analysis Task Force by recruiting more than 40 people representing a wide range of backgrounds—across age, gender, race, ethnicity, geography, and professional training, setting, and specialization.

The Social Work Census is the most comprehensive professionwide study to date. The workforce study findings will inform the creation of the most inclusive picture of today’s social workers. Joy Kim, PhD, MSW, of Rutgers School of Social Work, has been a key ASWB partner in this effort. As she points out, most data on where people work and how much they earn has come, until now, from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides a more limited view of the workforce. The census will capture much more information from many more individuals in the social work field, allowing our profession to connect the dots between workplace-related variables, such as practice setting, rural vs urban locations, and licensure status.

These efforts have not been ASWB’s alone. The Social Work Workforce Coalition, a cross-sectional group of leading US and Canadian social work organizations, has been an instrumental partner in both the Community Conversations and the Social Work Census. The coalition provided input on emerging trends in social work practice, helped structure the Community Conversations research design, and contributed workforce study questions to the Social Work Census.

Enhancing Exam Content and Structure
Findings from the Community Conversations and the Social Work Census, along with other research ASWB is conducting, will inform the content and structure of future assessments. However, the association is not waiting for those results to implement some significant changes to the current exams.

ASWB is currently phasing in a shift from four multiple-choice answer options to three. Having fewer answer options allows test takers to move through questions more quickly. Research shows that three-option questions are just as reliable and rigorous as four-option questions.

ASWB is also exploring a module-based approach in which candidates would retake only the content area sections they do not pass. ASWB is researching the most feasible way to introduce this change while maintaining the exams’ validity, reliability, and compliance with psychometric standards.

For as long as ASWB has been developing the exams, the questions have been written, reviewed, and revised by a dedicated group of diverse volunteers, consultants, subject matter experts, and contracted item writers. ASWB has enhanced this process to include an even larger and more diverse group of professionals to further strengthen its ability to prevent biases related to race, ethnicity, gender, type of social work practice, geography, and other factors.

Improving the Test-Taking Experience and Access
To further increase accessibility, ASWB is expanding options for how licensure candidates can take the exams. For example, candidates will soon have the option to take the exam online through secure, remote proctoring. This change promises to improve affordability and access for people who might otherwise need to pay for travel or childcare or take time from work to test in person. Additionally, ASWB is working with its exam administration partner to develop a scholarship fund with the goal of offering financial relief for repeat test takers.

ASWB is also striving to create an environment that offers every candidate the opportunity to be equally prepared to take the exam. ASWB offers a suite of free exam resources for educators to use in assisting students with their preparation for the exams. Last year, ASWB began supporting repeat test takers through the Test Mastery Mindset program provided by FifthTheory, an independent firm that offers materials designed for individuals taking high-stakes exams. Looking ahead to 2027 and beyond, ASWB will begin offering exams and supporting materials in French for the jurisdictions in Canada that require it. ASWB is also exploring offering the assessment in Spanish.

Assuring the Public’s Confidence and Trust
It’s in everyone’s interest to maintain professional standards while ensuring that future assessments are inclusive and accessible to all social workers seeking licensure. The social work profession is just that—a profession—one that needs licensing to maintain its stature and to protect the people it serves.

As a crucial piece of the licensure process, the licensing exams play a key role in the future of the social work profession. ASWB is committed to ensuring that all future competence assessments are as inclusive and reflective of the diversity of social work practice as well as the myriad communities that social workers serve. Leaders at ASWB are dedicated to continuing to administer reliable, valid, and fair assessments to ensure that social workers are competent to offer clients and client systems safe and ethical services.

Increasing diversity and inclusion in the development and content of the social work exams, as well as improving access to them, is the right thing to do—both for the social work workforce and the increasingly diverse communities served by that workforce.

— Lavina Harless, MSW, LCSW, is the senior director of examination services at the Association of Social Work Boards.