By Deborah Jones, RCSW
Dear Social Work colleagues,
I hope that you have had a great summer in spite of the forest fires burning around the province. Now that we are into Fall and all of the activities that it brings, I wanted to speak to you about a topic that I think has generated a fair amount of concern amongst current and potential social work registrants.
Since September 2015 the social work licensing exam has been mandatory for all new applicants to the BC College of Social Workers. With the implementation of the exam came some angst for a variety of reasons. Social Workers in Canada are not experienced in writing a licensing exam, so there was understandable fear about that. In addition, some Social Workers expressed concern about the exam being an American licensing exam and not necessarily relevant to Canadian social work practice. And finally, there was fear that the exam would not adequately capture the practice of Indigenous social workers, and could serve to penalize those who don’t share a Eurocentric, white, middle class perspective.
Although I am not an expert on the exam, I have some experience with it and write this article from my personal perspective. I wrote the Clinical exam in 2006 and in 2007 became an item writer for the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical Exam. I have been involved with the ASWB Exam Program since then and have served on the Clinical Exam Committee and been a Form (Exam) Reviewer. My most recent meeting was in Minneapolis in August where I served on the Clinical Exam Committee. My next meeting is in October in Reston, Virginia where I will be doing Form Review.
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) is an association of social work regulators for all jurisdictions in Canada and in the US and Virgin Islands, and owns the licensing exams. The ASWB has four exams: Bachelors, Masters, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical. The Bachelors and Masters exams, which are used in BC for social work applicants to the BC College of Social Workers, test entry to practice skills – i.e. the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for a new social worker on the first day of his or her job. The skills required of someone holding an MSW would, by definition, be more advanced than someone holding a BSW. Candidates for the Clinical exam, an exam that is available to eligible Social Work registrants in BC, must demonstrate 2 years of clinical supervision by an approved supervisor, post MSW, before they can sit for the exam. In BC, a Registered Clinical Social Worker (RCSW) means the social worker may undertake “the independent use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioural disorders and conditions, for the sole purpose of providing psychosocial intervention to enhance personal, interpersonal and social functioning” BCCSW Bylaw 42 (1)(b).
ASWB understandably must develop an entry to practice licensing exam that is as relevant to a social worker practicing in Nunavut as it is to a social worker practicing in New York City…an exam equally relevant to social work practitioners of all ethnicity, identified gender, religion, and geography (rural/urban; Canadian/American/Virgin Islands etc). In other words, social work exams must reflect our diversity without privileging anyone. So how does ASWB do it?
ASWB recruits item writers that reflect the diversity mentioned above. It is prestigious to become an ASWB item writer and there is no shortage of interested social workers to choose from. In addition, every 7 years ASWB conducts a practice analysis, where feedback is solicited from (diverse) social work practitioners across Canada, United States and the Virgin Islands regarding the skills needed for entry to social work practice. The knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) needed for social work practice evolve over time and the practice analysis captures this. The results of the practice analysis are then incorporated into the KSAs being tested on the exams.
Once an item is written, it begins a very long journey of scrutiny before it becomes an item on an exam. Items must be legally defensible and have a reference that is no more than 8 years old. Item writers submit an item to an Item Development Consultant who vets the item and, once approved, sends the item to the Exam Committee. The Exam Committee reviews or rewrites each item and then approves it for pretest. Statistics are collected on the pretest items. On every test there are pretest items (unknown to the test taker) that are not scored but rather, generate statistics about how the item is performing (too easy/too hard/confusing etc) and whether any group of test takers is advantaged or disadvantaged by the item.
Once an item performs well on the pretest, it is approved for the test. At that point, Form Reviewers carefully scrutinize an entire test (called a Form) to make sure every item reads well and is appropriate for the test. Canadian Form Reviewers scrutinize every test to verify and confirm that every test item is appropriate for Canada.
The ASWB licensing exams rate very well when compared to other professional licensing exams (e.g. medicine; pharmacology, law, etc). The statistics and tables show that the exams are testing the knowledge, skills and abilities that they were designed to test. This ensures that if a candidate fails the test on the first attempt, that the candidate will need to do additional preparation in order to successfully pass the exam on the second attempt.
Any Registered Social Worker is eligible to apply to ASWB to become an item writer. ASWB is actively recruiting Canadian item writers. This is a wonderful opportunity for Registered Social Workers to become trained as an item writer by ASWB and to meet Social Work colleagues from other jurisdictions during the weekend of training. The item writer training usually takes place in Virginia or Washington, DC and all expenses are paid by ASWB. I have found my experiences as an item writer, and subsequently as an Exam Committee member and Form Reviewer to be very rewarding and indeed, validating as a social work practitioner. I have made many friends over the years, and keep in regular contact with some of them. I would encourage social workers to consider applying to become an Item Writer. One additional incentive is that item writers are paid an honorarium of $1,000 USD for every 30 items approved for pretest.
Deborah Jones, RCSW
Chair of the Board
BC College of Social Workers