Regulation is regulation, and deregulation is deregulation
This article is Part 1 of a two-part series related to the development and legal defensibility of competence examinations used by government as one criterion of licensure eligibility. Read on, and stay tuned!
The Counsel’s Column in the upcoming December association news will discuss overall exam development and defensibility of entry-level competence examinations validated following industry standards. This newsletter article addresses the importance of using and recognizing the various categories of ASWB examinations within their intended means.
ASWB’s recent publication of examination data has brought to light the need for conversations about test-taker demographics and performance as well as about the purpose of competence examinations and the validation process. Part and parcel to this discussion is the differentiation between the dissimilar roles education and competence examinations play in establishing licensure eligibility.
ASWB has five examination categories validated for use by its member boards, the government entities delegated with the authority to license social workers and enforce the statutes. The five exam categories are Associate, Bachelors, Masters, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical. This article will focus on the Bachelors, Masters, and Clinical examinations, as the Associate and Advanced Generalist examinations have low numbers of test-takers, making statistical analyses more nuanced.
The Bachelors examination is validated for applicants with a bachelor’s degree in social work and assesses basic generalist practice of baccalaureate social work. The Masters examination is validated for applicants with a master’s degree in social work and assesses the practice of master’s social work, including the application of specialized knowledge and advanced practice skills. The Clinical examination is validated for applicants with a master’s degree in social work and supervised experience and assesses the practice of clinical social work requiring the application of specialized clinical knowledge and advanced clinical skills.
A lack of understanding of the various roles of education, examination, and experience will lead to hasty decisions and, ultimately, the potential for deregulation of the profession of social work. Deregulation threatens the health, safety, and welfare of the recipients of social work services. Further, deregulation places practice and employment opportunities in the private sector and threatens the objective nature of government involvement in determining licensure eligibility.
ASWB examinations serve to objectively measure competence and determine whether an individual has the minimum knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to safely perform a set of tasks. Entry-level competence exams offer a reliable and cost-effective way to make this determination and are not a capstone to an educational experience. All ASWB examinations are developed and validated to assess entry-level competence in the practice category identified in the statute. As a reminder, legislatures enact statutes that create social work boards and require licensure for persons engaged in the identified scopes of practice. Some states have up to five categories of licensure while others may license at just one category, that being clinical social workers. These statutes identify the three “E’s” as prerequisites to licensure. The three E’s include education, experience, and examination. Entry-level competence examinations are used by all states in virtually all licensed professions.
As an additional reminder, ASWB acknowledges and respects the rights of the states to determine the categories of licensure necessary to protect the public, inclusive not only of the recipients of social work services but also of applicants and licensees. With these varying categories and scopes come the complications of competence assessments.
To meet the needs of the varying categories of licensure set forth in the laws, ASWB develops, administers, scores, and maintains multiple examinations designed to assess the competence of test-takers wishing to practice as associate social workers, bachelor’s social workers, master’s social workers, advanced generalist social workers, and clinical social workers. It must be emphasized that the legislative enactments that regulate any profession, including social work, are premised upon the need for public protection. The ASWB Model Social Work Practice Act suggests the following for its legislative declaration.
Section 102. Legislative Declaration. The practice of social work in the _______________ of _____________________ is declared a professional practice affecting the public health, safety, and welfare and is subject to regulation and control in the public interest. It is further declared to be a matter of public interest and concern that the practice of social work, as defined in this Act, merit and receive the confidence of the public and that only qualified persons be permitted to engage in the practice of social work in the _______________ of _____________. This Act shall be liberally construed to carry out these objectives and purposes.
Section 103. Statement of Purpose. It is the purpose of this Act to promote, preserve, and protect the public health, safety, and welfare by and through the effective regulation of the practice of social work; the licensure of social workers; the licensure, control, and regulation of persons, in or out of this state, that practice social work within this state.
The multiple categories of licensure dictated by statute have stimulated ASWB to develop examinations to meet the needs of the membership, including competence assessment of applicants within each of those categories. Over the course of time and based on the numerous categories of licensure set forth in state law, some member boards have used an ASWB examination in a category that may not be consistent with its intended purpose. Over recent years, ASWB has emphasized the intended use of each examination and encouraged its member boards to take the necessary steps to ensure statutes, regulations, and policies are consistent with this intent.
The ASWB Model Social Work Practice Act suggests three categories of licensure: baccalaureate, master’s, and clinical. ASWB examinations are validated following industry standards to assess the entry-level competence of the test-takers within the intended scope of practice. Thus, Bachelors examination test-takers are tested on their knowledge of baccalaureate practice; Masters examination test-takers are tested on their knowledge of master’s practice; and Clinical examination test-takers are tested on their knowledge of clinical practice. As social work practice and regulation have evolved, some states have used the examinations for competence determinations in categories for which the tests were not specifically validated. For example, the Masters examination was being used to assess the competence of an applicant seeking licensure as a baccalaureate social worker. ASWB has granted waivers to requesting member boards to use an examination for purposes of assessing competence outside of the intended competence area. These waivers were temporary and intended to allow for the necessary legislative action to take place, understanding the time-consuming process involved in making changes to law (statutes and regulations).
Social work regulation premised upon the various practice categories is an essential means of public protection through government regulation. The use of a competence examination is an equally critical means of assessing licensure eligibility. Use of the identified examination to assess the competence of applicants for the specified category of licensure enhances the ability of the examination to be defended if challenged. When asked to use the appropriate examination for the intended licensure scope, at least one jurisdiction elected to eliminate the use of any examination altogether for that category of licensure. This legislative change passed both chambers of the legislature without a single dissenting vote (October 2021 Counsel’s Column, “Let’s process this process”).
Member boards and legislatures must understand the basic premise behind entry-level competence assessments and the vital role they play. This knowledge will lead to more-informed legislative and administrative decisions. All U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions regulate social work practice in some way. A lack of understanding of the various roles of education, examination, and experience will lead to hasty decisions and, ultimately, the potential for deregulation of the profession of social work. Deregulation threatens the health, safety, and welfare of the recipients of social work services. Further, deregulation places practice and employment opportunities in the private sector and threatens the objective nature of government involvement in determining licensure eligibility. Regulated professions create and authorize government boards to apply the statutes and regulations in a consistent manner under threat of judicial challenges.