An open letter to social work deans and directors

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Editor’s note

On November 9, 2021, ASWB’s Board of Directors unanimously approved a motion to gather, analyze, and release examination performance data. The motion directs ASWB staff and its consultants to develop a plan to implement this information-sharing initiative, which is anticipated to include performance data broken down by demographic group for our member jurisdictions as well as schools of social work. Read ASWB’s Board of Directors approves initiative to release examination performance data to learn more.

ASWB’s primary service to our members is development and administration of the licensing exams. In providing that service, ASWB is committed to developing and administering licensing exams that fairly measure minimum competence.

Several member boards have recently received inquiries from deans and directors of social work programs in their state asking about availability of data showing pass rates on ASWB exams broken down by demographics. ASWB has met with some member boards and representatives from social work academic programs to address the concerns and questions they have raised. ASWB has also created a web page, Measuring competence fairly, that provides information, videos, and materials outlining the steps that are taken in the exam development process to ensure fairness. We encourage all of our members to visit the web page. I would like to share with our member boards some perspective and thoughts on these recent inquiries in the form of a letter to the deans and directors. If any member boards would like additional information or desire to have ASWB attend a meeting of your state or provincial board, please let us know.

Dear Deans and Directors,

During 2020, the issue of racial injustice resulting from institutional racism has been prominent throughout the United States, Canada, and the world. Anyone would be hard-pressed to have missed the Black Lives Matter movement and its emphasis on this important issue and the need for change. And evidence is clear that institutional racism remains in many, if not all, systems in our society and negatively affects people of color.

photograph of Dwight Hymans
Dwight J. Hymans, MSW, LCSW, ACSW ASWB Chief Executive Officer

With the increased movement to enact changes to modify or eliminate the systems that create disparities based on race, the ASWB exams have come under increased scrutiny. That scrutiny has taken the form of additional pressure to provide data showing whether outcomes on the licensing exams vary based on demographic differences.

By now most of you are aware of the policy ASWB has followed since the inception of the organization in 1979. ASWB does not collect and thus does not release exam outcomes based on demographics. It is the written policy of ASWB as directed by the ASWB Board of Directors. We explained our process and policy in a letter sent in February to the president of the National Deans and Directors in response to NADD’s initial request for this information. Nevertheless, for the past several months many of you, individually and collectively, have been asking our member boards for this data and asking whether individuals sitting for the exams have an equal chance of being successful. The unstated assertion is that people of color do not have an equal opportunity and that the exams are biased.

ASWB follows a rigorous process to guard against bias in individual exam items (questions). The social workers involved in this process are primarily volunteers from diverse practice areas, geographic locales, and demographics. From the time exam questions are written by trained item writers, and before the questions appear as scored items on one of the exams, they undergo a stringent evaluation process. This process includes review by social work consultants who work directly with the item writers and review by Exam Committee members—themselves former item writers. This evaluation process looks at many aspects of an item, including indicators of bias. In addition to subject matter experts providing subjective analyses, psychometricians conduct objective analyses using industry-standard statistical tools. One part of the psychometric analysis determines whether varied groups have an advantage or disadvantage in determining the correct answer for that item. ASWB removes any item that shows this type of differential item functioning. This item-by-item analysis is done to assure an equal opportunity. This process is the same method used in any credible high-stakes standardized exam and is consistent with established industry standards.

ASWB’s responsibility is to provide services to our members as they work to accomplish their mandate of protecting the public. ASWB’s primary service to our members is development and administration of the licensing exams. In providing that service, ASWB is committed to developing and administering licensing exams that fairly measure minimum competence. The exams must be reliable, valid, and legally defensible to ensure that the licensing boards and regulatory bodies that use the exams can stand behind them when a license to practice social work is awarded to an applicant. ASWB answers to the state and provincial member boards who govern the association and determine our bylaws and leadership. They must—and do—hold  ASWB to a high standard.

That same mandate of protecting the public drives the work of ASWB. And it provides direction in deciding what the association can and should do within the boundaries of that mandate. ASWB’s responsibility to our members doesn’t preclude responding to requests from nonmember organizations. But it does mean we must first ask whether the request is within ASWB’s mandate and whether the information we provide is usable data that can help individuals and those assisting them in preparing for the licensing exam and professional practice.

During an earlier time in my career, I spent 15 years teaching and directing field placement programs in three different social work academic programs. I experienced the challenge of preparing students for the profession. Recognizing the challenges for educators, ASWB is currently looking at some data points that are available and can be aggregated in a manner that may be helpful to academic programs. We are also in the process of reconfiguring current resources available to assist in preparing for the exams in a new, less expensive format.

While many believe that ASWB is a social work organization by virtue of its name, the entirety of the name clearly indicates that ASWB is a regulatory organization. As such, ASWB is accountable to the members of the association: the regulatory bodies in 64 states, provinces, districts, and territories. Based on the purpose and use of licensing exams and the data currently collected, ASWB wants to be sure that any information shared with the social work community is first accurate and second appropriate for use in this manner. ASWB is committed to exploring options that meet these criteria.