Let’s process this process: Illinois Senate Bill 1632

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Counsel's column

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

In February 2021, legislation was introduced by an Illinois state senator. The sponsor was a Democrat. Her credentials from the government website are as follows:

Committee assignments: Agriculture; Behavioral and Mental Health (Vice-Chair);  Education; Health; Pensions; App-Health (Sub-Vice-Chair); Sub. on Long-Term Care & Aging; Redistricting-Kane & Kendall (Sub-Vice-Chair); Redistricting-Northern Illinois; Redistricting-DuPage County.

Biography: Full-time state legislator and lifelong resident of the 25th Senate District; Previously served as Representative of the Illinois House’s 49th District; Child of immigrant parents and small business owners; MSW in social work from Aurora University; former social worker in the West Chicago and Villa Park school systems; Former vice president of West Chicago District 33 Board of Education.

The first reading of the proposed legislation, known as Senate Bill 1632, or SB1632, occurred on February 26, 2021. SB1632 progressed through the customary life of a proposed law or amendment. On March 9, 2021, it was assigned to the Licensed Activities Committee. Six of the nine Licensed Activities Committee members were Democrats. Three were Republicans.

All proposed legislation to a practice act should be presented to the relevant regulatory board for input. The expertise on the board is beneficial to the legislature when determining what’s in the best interest of the consuming public.

On March 16, 2021, four cosponsors, all Democrats, were added to the proposed bill. One of the cosponsors also served on the Licensed Activities Committee. On March 17, 2021, the committee recommended “Do Pass” on SB1632. On March 24, 2021, SB1632 went through its second reading. On March 24 and 25, 2021, two additional cosponsors, both Democrats, were added. On April 21, 2021, SB1632 went through its third reading and passed the Senate 56–0.

SB1632 was forwarded to the House on April 22, 2021. The chief House sponsor was a Democrat. The first reading before the House occurred on April 23, 2021. On that same day, the bill was referred to the House Rules Committee consisting of five Representatives—three Democrats and two Republicans. On April 28, 2021, SB1632 was assigned to the eight-member Health Care Licenses Committee, of which five were Democrats and three were Republicans. On May 5, 2021, the Health Care Licenses Committee recommended “Do Pass.” Thereafter, three additional cosponsors, two Republican and one Democrat, were added.

On May 27, 2021, the House passed SB1632 by a vote of 117–0. On June 25, 2021, the bill was sent to the Governor, who signed it into law on August 6, 2021. The law has an effective date of January 1, 2022. To recap, SB1632 was introduced, discussed, voted upon by both legislative chambers, adopted without dissent, and signed into law within 161 days.

Senate Bill 1632 removes an entry-level competence examination from the criteria for licensure as a social worker. The qualifications that remain in the law as prerequisites to licensure include filing an application, paying fees, being determined to be of good moral character, and graduating from either an approved graduate program of social work or an approved undergraduate program of social work with three years of supervision. Passing an entry-level competence examination remains a prerequisite to licensure for clinical social workers.

Why was SB1632 passed without dissent?

According to its website, the NASW-Illinois chapter initiated this legislation and garnered the support of elected officials. It is possible that the politicians voting on this change were unaware of the important role education and examinations play in determining licensure eligibility. Perhaps the policy makers lacked critical knowledge and/or did not have access to or take the time to research the important issues at stake.

All proposed legislation to a practice act should be presented to the relevant regulatory board for input. The expertise on the board is beneficial to the legislature when determining what’s in the best interest of the consuming public. Of course, the legislative branch of government need not heed the opinions of the board; however, it can make a more informed decision when educated about the effects of proposed legislation. In the case of SB1632, there is no evidence that the social work board was consulted as to the advantages and disadvantages of the bill before its enactment, although Phil Koehl testified representing himself at a bill hearing. ASWB submitted written testimony opposing the bill at the board’s request. (As a suggestion to ASWB, perhaps the ASWB Model Social Work Practice Act should be amended to require that any amendments to the practice act [perhaps with a few exceptions] be submitted to the social work board for comment prior to enactment.)

As in the case of SB1632, the regulatory structure may come into play on these important issues. In Illinois, regulation of the professions follows a departmentalized approach in which the boards are advisory only. That is, the regulatory boards make recommendations to the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation for final approval and implementation. This type of regulatory structure may thwart the ability of the board to make best use of its expertise.

What role does an entry-level examination play in the licensure process?

It is apparent that the ultimate intent of government regulation of any profession is public protection. A licensure examination developed following industry standards is a legally defensible determination of whether the examinee demonstrates entry-level competence.

The ASWB examination program employs a rigorous process to ensure that its exams are developed using valid psychometric standards. The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing were developed by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education. These standards follow the principles of validity and reliability. Validity means that the examination tests what it is intended to test. Reliability ensures consistency of results across testing populations. Meeting industry standards of validity and reliability provide a legal basis for defending the examination and the pass-fail results. The passing standard is determined based on psychometric standards; how far a passing score is above the cut score is irrelevant to performance. As with any high-stakes licensure examination, passage of the examination is a prerequisite to the government issuance of a licensure.

High-stakes licensure examinations are used in numerous professions as one criterion for licensure eligibility. It is important to note that an entry-level licensure examination is not a capstone to an education. It is a snapshot in time based on the survey instrument that gathers what practitioners do on a regular basis and how important such tasks are in practice. Licensure examinations are criterion referenced, meaning that results are based on demonstrated knowledge, skills, and abilities. There is no curve and, theoretically, everyone can pass or fail. Results are measured against the content of the exam, not a test-taker’s peers.

An education program offers the freedom to engage with students under a long-term and immersive process to ensure a well-rounded academic experience. Students are afforded numerous rights and protections, having paid significant sums of money for the experience, and are, ultimately, prepared for a life-long experience in their chosen career. Students are graded over the life of each course; examinations are not validated using psychometric measurements and need not be defended if challenged. A student’s performance on academic tests is measured against the performance of the student’s peers. Higher performance on an academic test may indicate the student has better command of the subject matter.

One question to be posed is: Should every graduate of an educational program be assumed to possess the entry-level competence to practice social work safely and effectively? An alternative question may be: Is passing the licensing examination sufficient to demonstrate qualifications to practice regardless of academic achievements?

The heart of the issue

Without being naïve to politics, elected officials are subject to being influenced. Certainly, the NASW-Illinois chapter can attract attention. However, it is hoped that the legislative branch of government seeks the opinions of the “experts,” governor-appointed board members who may be in the best position to weigh in on proposed legislative amendments. In the case of the bill at issue, no evidence is available that input was requested. In fact, many social work boards may interpret their role to prohibit any such interaction with the legislative branch. While social work boards may be prohibited from lobbying, their role as an information source to the legislature should be encouraged.

The heart of the issue in Illinois is whether the ASWB examinations are being used in the appropriate manner; that is, used for the purpose for which they are intended. Instead of establishing a BSW category of licensure and using the ASWB Bachelors examination (along with the Masters examination for MSW category of licensure), the Illinois legislature simply removed the examination requirement, effectively delegating entry-level competence to the education system. Such an approach is fraught with public protection peril.