In challenging times, the exam development program remains strong

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Foresight of past and present members of the ASWB Board have led to the association’s current strength in adversity.

ASWB’s signature program, the development and maintenance of the social work licensing examinations, remains strong in the face of challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most significant of the challenges has been Pearson VUE’s suspension of testing at its test centers in the United States and Canada beginning on March 17. Cancellation of the March Examination Committee meeting in San Diego had the potential to interrupt the supply of new items, and the cancellation of the form review meeting meant that the quarterly launch of new exam forms would not occur. With ASWB implementing remote work for employees in response to state shelter in place mandates, the regular ebb and flow of business has been disrupted. Despite these circumstances, the association is well prepared to continue operations during and after the crisis.

According to ASWB Director of Examination Development Lavina Harless, routine processes in examination development have safeguarded the program from adverse effects during this time. “The exam program has multiple [test] forms of the examinations online at all times,” Harless says. “This protects the program from circumstances such as the present COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused testing volumes to decrease dramatically. Whenever testing resumes, we’ll be in essentially the same position we were in prior to the shutdowns, at least in terms of examination security and test development.”

“[ASWB] has never lost sight of the importance of the examination program to the effective functioning of our member boards in their public protection mission.” – Lavina Harless, Director of Examination Development

Form creation and item review will continue on an adjusted schedule in 2020. Examination Committee meetings bring together consultants who work together to review items submitted by ASWB’s cadre of item writers, revising and approving items for inclusion in item banks. “We will work with the Examination Committee to make up for this loss throughout the year by holding ad hoc committee meetings along with the regular committee meetings and using our form reviewers to perform problem item resolution as needed,” Harless says.

And creative solutions are being devised to make sure the Examination Committee stays in touch. Committee members are planning to meet via teleconferencing. “We are going to have Zoom meetings … since we missed March,” Harless says. “No content will be discussed, but we’ll use the time to check in and connect.”

Back at ASWB’s home base in Culpeper, Virginia, the exam development staff is working remotely to continue to manage the program. “From accepting item writing assignments to preparing for the fall online Item Writer Refresher Training, things are still moving!” Harless says. And consultants, who typically work for ASWB from their homes across the United States, continue to contribute to this year’s projects. “The 2020 item bank inventory project is well under way,” Harless notes. “Our item development consultants have reconciled close to 2,000 items this first quarter. Because this work was set up remotely, the consultants can focus on it from home while we are all social distancing.”

The suspension of testing, which has resumed at a limited selection of Pearson VUE test centers to allow testing of essential service providers, including social workers, has led to many questions from exam candidates and faculty. Some have suggested that a way to continue to administer examinations during mandated physical distancing is to offer an online testing option. “As we know, security is a high priority for any high-stakes licensing exam,” says Dwight Hymans, ASWB chief operating officer and incoming CEO. “For this reason, ASWB has used in-person test administration at Pearson Professional Centers exclusively. Pearson VUE has extensive security measures built into their testing processes that reduce the likelihood of cheating or item harvesting.”

Hymans says, “ASWB recognizes the positive aspects of online testing for the candidate. When test centers are closed, it would seem to be a good alternative.” Indeed, ASWB has been considering other options to deliver the exams during the pandemic. In that deliberation, association leaders have taken many factors into account, including making sure that every test-taker has equal access to the exams. Because of the high-stakes nature of the exams, ASWB regards the risk to the reliability and validity of the exam as unacceptably high. Online examination administration was developed for testing related to voluntary certification programs. It was not designed for high-stakes testing, which requires a high degree of security, consistency in the test delivery experience to ensure fairness to test-takers, and sustained connectivity during the allotted test time.

“In addition,” Hymans says, “to switch from our current in-person test administration process to an online testing structure would require a significant investment of funds and take at least six months to put in place.” ASWB will, however, continue to monitor the development of online testing and remote proctoring. And the association is working to help candidates, who are understandably frustrated by limitations in testing opportunities, to reschedule their testing appointments.

The pandemic’s financial impact on ASWB is another concern. While past ASWB Boards of Directors could not have foreseen the exact scenario being experienced, policies they put in place may be used to protect ASWB’s financial security and provide for its ongoing mission of providing services to the social work regulatory community.

Policy 7.14 addresses reserve funding, stating, “The Association is committed to ensuring its continued operation through the establishment of reserve funds, some of which may be set aside for specific purposes.” Steady annual contributions to the reserve fund have placed ASWB in a strong fiscal position to weather a potential loss of income, though ASWB has not yet needed to access the fund. “For now, ASWB has continued to receive revenue from exam registrations and our other products,” Hymans says. “Harold Dean, ASWB president, and Tim Brown, past president, have been apprised of our current financial status and have assured CEO Mary Jo Monahan and me that the Board is ready to act on a request to access the funds should it be necessary.” Another financial tool available to the association, one that may be preferable given current market conditions, is the low-interest line of credit that the Board established when the new headquarters building project began.

Foresight of past and present members of the ASWB Board of Directors to develop policies in anticipation of the unexpected have led to the association’s current strength in adversity. “In terms of the examination, ASWB is in a fortunate position to meet the challenges of this pandemic because we’ve made a conscious and continued investment in item development and form creation,” Harless says.  ASWB itself and its examination program remain strong, she adds, “because the association has never lost sight of the importance of the examination program to the effective functioning of our member boards in their public protection mission.”