Government regulation: The three E’s

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photograph of Dale Atkinson
Dale Atkinson is a partner with the Illinois law firm that is counsel to ASWB.

Challenges to government regulation of the professions can come in many shapes and sizes. Legal challenges, propounded through litigation, may question compliance with constitutional principles: Plaintiffs may argue that government regulation violates recognized inalienable rights such as freedom of speech. Practical challenges may question whether regulation of the professions creates unnecessary barriers to entry into a chosen career. These arguments might evolve into legal actions and usually contend that prerequisites to licensure and their associated costs stymie economic growth and deter persons from pursuing their selected careers. Finally, “political” challenges to government regulation of the professions may stimulate government to become involved in, make amendments to, or remove itself from regulating the professions.

Admittedly, these multifaceted challenges are inextricably intertwined. They may, and usually do, merge together to form the basis for scrutiny. But this article will focus on the “politics of regulation.” Reference to politics is essential because government regulation of the professions is premised upon the legislative enactment of statutes that set forth the parameters of licensure. These statutes, sometimes referred to as practice acts, establish and delegate authority to a board to regulate the profession in the interest of public protection. Regulatory boards exist because of statutory enactments and are authorized to act only within the scope of that authority. Political challenges through legislative scrutiny can be stimulated by litigation, judicial opinions, and constituent pressures. Keep in mind that even unsuccessful legal challenges can prompt amendments to or elimination of practice acts.

Counsel's column

Understanding the basis for and prerequisites of licensure set forth in law is the best way to prepare for legal, practical and/or political debate surrounding government regulation. This knowledge will help form the basis for substantiating initial and continued government involvement in the regulation of the professions. The fundamental criteria for licensure as a social worker generally include the three E’s; education, examination, and experience. It is important to understand why such criteria are included in the law. Indeed, a question that policy makers often ask is: Why are both education and examination needed as eligibility components for licensure?


The first of the E’s is education. Social work practice acts require applicants to obtain a certain level of education as a prerequisite to licensure. Persons seeking licensure must not only have completed the required education, but also must cause the submission of original transcripts from the education program to the licensing board. In many cases, licensees in one jurisdiction must repeat this process and incur the added time and expense of obtaining these very same transcripts to become licensed in a second jurisdiction. This repetitive requirement contributes to the inefficiencies of government licensure processes and advances the political pressures promoting change. (ASWB’s Social Work Registry program reduces unnecessary reproduction of documents and promotes efficiencies in government licensure for member regulatory boards , all while assisting social work licensees.)

Substantively, an education component in licensure statutes ensures that the applicant has successfully completed an academic program in social work. Undergraduate and graduate-level social work education programs are designed to provide students with individualized instruction covering a wide variety of subjects. These subjects are based upon a curriculum developed by educators in the field of social work. Professor-student relationships evolve through academic freedom and subject matter exploration. Educational assessments and tests provide continuous student performance reviews and matriculation through the program. In the end, graduates have completed social work courses over time through academic instruction and assessment based upon educational curricula, program content, and professor-student relationships. Time and space account for the evolution of those students to prepare them for a lifelong career in social work. When someone asks why licensure statutes require education as one component of eligibility, the answer is related to the role of education and the academic rigors of graduates.

Logically, the next question is whether all graduates possess the entry-level competence to practice social work safely and effectively. This is a complex question as the obligation of educational programs are not to act as the gatekeeper to entry into the social work profession. As to the potential for conflicting objectives, it is worthy to note that some education programs are privately owned and operated and may place profit over performance. Educational programs undertake an admissions process designed to address the likelihood of success in an educational setting. Do social work education programs evaluate applicants taking into consideration their character as an applicant for licensure? No. Further, educational programs may be influenced by pressures to avoid litigation around the admissions process and the continued enrollment of students. Education programs are, in part, judged by the percentage of graduates to enrollees and the number of years to graduation. Accreditation standards closely monitor this important statistic. Programs are incentivized to graduate their students in a reasonable period of time.

Capturing these complex topics but simply stated, do all social work education program graduates possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities to practice at a minimum standard? Consistent with other professions, the answer to this question is no. As a licensed profession, this gatekeeping responsibility falls to a governmental regulatory board enacted through the relevant practice act. This is where entry-level competence examinations play an integral role.


The next E in the trilogy is examination. First and foremost, entry-level competence examinations (hereinafter referred to as competence examinations) are NOT a capstone to an academic education. This is a common misconception carried by most people outside of the testing industry, including elected officials. Competence examinations and educational programs are separate and distinct from each other and fulfill two very different goals.

Competence examinations are developed, administered, scored, and maintained following psychometric principles and standards developed by testing experts. These standards allow for the statistical analysis of virtually every phase of the development and scoring processes and, in the event of a legal challenge, provide defensibility of competence examinations. Educational program tests do not follow these principles.

Competence examinations are developed, administered, scored, and maintained to allow candidates for licensure to demonstrate their entry-level knowledge, skills, and abilities in that particular profession. This is their only function; as an indicator, they offer a snapshot in time. They are criterion-referenced, meaning that all examinees may pass or fail the exam. They are not developed and scored on a curve to establish a hierarchy of test-takers and allow for analysis driven by performance of various cohorts. They simply establish competence at the cut score (sometimes referred to as the pass point). Those who meet or exceed the cut score pass the examination and are deemed to have demonstrated competence. How far above the pass point an examinee scores is irrelevant as a predictor of future performance.

Content domains are established through an analysis of the results of a survey instrument that identifies tasks and levels of importance for practitioners on their first day on the job. Based upon these domains, items/questions are written. Generally, items are pretested so they can be analyzed for performance. Pretest items do not count toward an examinee’s pass-fail results. Poorly performing items do not become scored items and are eliminated from the pool. Once statistical analysis determines that a pretest item is performing to industry standards, it becomes a scored item. This process is followed continuously to ensure a robust bank of items necessary to protect the integrity and security of the exams.

Competence examinations follow psychometric standards to also provide assurances that they assess competence free from unlawful bias. Conclusions drawn from the results of a competence examination are specifically intended to differentiate between examinees who demonstrate entry-level competence and those who do not. Competence exams perform an essential role in assuring the licensing authorities of this differentiation. The complex statistical analyses of examination development and scoring assist exam owners in assuring a legally defensible assessment of a test-taker’s competence and fulfill the intended requirement set in law. Accordingly, the government licensing boards in social work can stand behind the pass-fail conclusions drawn from the assessment instrument. As a reminder, ASWB is a membership organization composed of these very licensing authorities in social work. The ASWB competence examinations are your examinations.

In short, when someone asks why the law requires a competence examination as one component of licensure eligibility, the answer is related to the role of an examination and the legally defensible psychometric process used. Competence examinations allow applicants to demonstrate entry-level competence separate and distinct from the role of education, understanding that all education graduates do not necessarily possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities to safely and competently practice.


The next E addresses experience. Experience in the form of supervised practice provides an additional measure of assessment to prepare social workers for the independent practice of social work. Supervision allows new social workers to obtain vital experience and oversight while engaging in the practice of social work. Much debate exists as to the number of hours necessary to meet this threshold and how to recognize adequate supervisors. Readers are encouraged to refer to the ASWB Model Social Work Practice Act and its model regulations, but in the end, supervision ensures the licensing board that the new social worker has practiced under the observation of a seasoned social worker and benefited from this joined experience.

In short, when someone asks why social workers must complete supervised practice to achieve a certain level of licensure or independent practice privileges, the answer is that recognized supervisors provide an important benefit of mentoring new practitioners for a period of time before the social worker can attain this recognition.

The three E’s

The three E’s provide a basis for social work boards to comply with the statutory mandates of assessing applicants for licensure. The benefits of an accredited educational process, standardized licensure examinations, and some form of supervised practice provide government boards with collective recognition while respecting state and provincial rights. This not only provides significant efficiencies in governmental licensure processes, but also promotes uniformity and enhances mobility and portability of licensure.

It is difficult to capture the basis for the three E’s in licensure of social workers in a short newsletter article. ASWB member boards are encouraged to seek as much information as necessary to be assured that the programs and services are meeting the needs of social work regulation in the interest of public protection. A keen understanding of the fundamental principles in this article may assist social work boards in responding to political inquiries and in promoting the benefits of licensure through affirmative outreach.

Perhaps the most important concept is that you are ASWB!