Who, What, When, Where, Why, How
By: Stephen M. Marson, Ph.D.
An interview with Association of Social Work Boards Executive Director Donna DeAngelis, LICSW, ACSW, by Stephen M. Marson, Ph.D.
1. How many test questions (called items because not all are actually in the form of questions) are on the exam? There is a rumor that some of the items are “fake” and do not count toward the final score. Is that true?
There are 170 items on the exam. 150 are scored items, and 20 are pretest items that do not count toward the passing score.
The pretest items are scattered throughout the test at random, so there is no way to tell which items count toward the score and which items don’t. However, these pretest items are not “fake.” Items are pretested before they can be used as scored items. When an item is being pretested, it means that the item appears on the examination, but does not count toward the passing score. An item is approved for use as a scored item only if its statistical performance is acceptable. That means that, statistically, it provides a valid measure of the test taker’s knowledge in a particular content area. The system of pretesting questions protects candidates by making it possible to use only questions that have been proven effective in testing relevant knowledge. The answers to pretest items are never counted toward an examinee’s score.
2. Many BSW students are having difficulty paying the exam fees. Why was there an increase in cost for taking the test?
The ASWB fees were increased effective January 1, 2010 to $230 for Bachelor’s and Master’s examinations and $260 for Advanced Generalist and Clinical examinations. The social work licensing examination fee is established primarily to support the ASWB social work licensing examination program. The examination development process is very extensive and expensive. ASWB has been faced with increases in examination development, security, and administration costs. The enhancements we have made to the examination program during this time have increased its validity and reliability. Improvements to the technical characteristics of the exams ultimately also reinforce the fairness of the exams to candidates who take an exam to demonstrate that they have the social work knowledge necessary to practice without risk of harm to the public. This was the first increase since 2001, because of careful budget monitoring and ongoing restraint in spending.
3. Do scholarship funds exist for those who have difficulty paying the exam fees?
ASWB has no scholarships available, and I am not aware of other sources.
4. Instead of having giant increases every ten years or so, is it possible to have small increases every year?
The cost of making incremental fee increases would outweigh the benefits, both in terms of the publication costs and information changes that would need to be made at the board and association levels, as well as the level of confusion and (likely ongoing) frustration that would occur at the candidate level.
5. Are the tests designed to measure what social workers learn while they were students, or are they designed to measure what social workers do as professionals?
The examination questions are based on knowledge statements developed through periodic practice analysis surveys across the U.S. and Canada, in which social workers are asked to identify and rank the tasks they must know how to perform on the first day of employment. The data from this survey are analyzed by social work subject matter experts, who then construct the content outlines. The survey sample and respondents statistically reflect the makeup of the profession, as does the composition of the subject matter experts who analyze the data. A survey was conducted in 2001-2003, and the resulting examinations began being administered on May 17, 2004, with test content determined by the results from the survey information. The most recent survey was completed in 2009, and the examinations resulting from this survey will be given starting in January 2011.
6. A commonly asked question from social work faculty in Michigan: We think there is an over-representation of test items on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the MSW exam. The social workers taking this test are not in clinical positions, nor do they plan to be. Can you discuss this?
The content on the Master’s examination is based on the survey of what social workers do on their jobs as described above. The Master’s examination must cover the entire scope of practice for social workers entering the profession with the Master’s degree. This is quite challenging to do in 150 questions. Although there may be some questions based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, there are also questions on social work policy, administration, and community organization. I have found that the social workers taking the examination tend to remember the items that they have difficulty answering. Items based on knowledge from the DSM require recall of material, and if the material has not been learned during the person’s education, it will be hard to answer the question. However, missing just these few items would not be sufficient to affect the overall score enough to cause a person to fail, unless many more questions were answered incorrectly.
There is a difference between the expectation that an MSW social worker should know about the DSM, what it is, how it works and is organized, and the various disorders listed in it and the expectation that clinical social workers would be expected to know how to apply the information in the DSM to make a diagnosis. Just because the test may contain a few questions on the DSM, this doesn’t necessarily mean that MSWs would be expected to do clinical work. The Clinical examination has much more content on diagnosis and treatment of mental health and behavioral disorders, just as the Advanced Generalist examination has more content on macro practice. Both of these examinations are given to social workers with a Master’s degree and a minimum of two years post-graduate supervised experience.
7. Where do you get the test items?
Social workers are trained every year to be item writers, and they are the people who develop the specific examination questions. The items that are written are reviewed by Item Development Consultants who either return them to the writer for changes, or approve them to go on to the Examination Committee for review. The items are also edited multiple times for grammar and readability.
The ASWB Examination Committee has 18 members from social work practice and education. This committee reviews every new item and must reach consensus on each item before it is pretested on the social work examinations. The committee specifically looks for only one correct answer for each item. If the committee cannot come to consensus, the question is either discarded or changed.
All of the social workers who work on developing the examinations—members of the Practice Analysis Task Force, item writers, item development consultants, Examination Committee members—are also diverse by race, ethnicity, culture, gender, and geography.
8. What standard do you use to make sure the test items are good?
The ASWB licensing examinations are constructed according to the guidelines of the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (of the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education) and the guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with psychometric guidance from ACT, a national testing company. The testing company does statistical analyses on all items being pretested and for active scored items on a regular basis. There are statistical standards that each item must meet in order to be used on an examination to count toward the score.
The ASWB examinations typically have reliability coefficients of .9 and higher, which means that repeated administrations of the exams produce highly consistent scores for the candidates who take the exams. The tests provide reliable measures of the knowledge of test candidates.
9. As the Executive Director of ASWB, what is the most common question you are asked?
The most common question I am asked is, “Why can’t I pass the test?” This is a very complicated question, because there could be many reasons or a combination of reasons.
The first answer is that the candidate does not have the necessary knowledge to successfully pass the examination, and that candidate will not pass until his or her social work knowledge is increased. In this situation, I recommend that the candidate review the failing score report to determine in which content areas the most questions were missed, and then obtain continuing education in those areas. In some instances, course work may need to be repeated. I realize that no social work graduate wants to hear this recommendation, but for a candidate who does not have the social work knowledge necessary to pass, taking the examination repeatedly will not change the result.
The second answer is that the candidate does have the necessary social work knowledge, but is unable to demonstrate it successfully on a multiple choice examination. This could be due to inexperience with taking multiple choice exams, or due to excessive anxiety that gets in the way of the candidate performing in a way that demonstrates his or her actual level of knowledge. For people who have little experience with multiple choice exams, I recommend the ASWB Study Guide and/or the ASWB online practice exam. The Study Guide explains the examination process and content and provides a 50-question practice examination that can be scored. The correct answers and the reasons that those answers have been verified by social work subject matter experts are provided. The online practice examination is composed of 150 actual questions that are no longer active on the examinations and 20 sample pretest questions. The examination is accessed with a password and looks just like the real examination will look at the test center. There is a tutorial that explains how to answer the questions, mark questions for review, and go back to marked questions or review all questions. The exam is then available for four hours, during which time the candidate must answer the questions. After the four hours are up or when the candidate presses the quit control, the examination will score itself overall and by content area. The candidate may then review the scoring, the correct answers, and the rationales for the correct answers. The candidate has access to the test for 30 days but may answer the 170 questions only once. These questions will not appear on the actual exams. The same content will be tested with different questions.
Using these practice tests tends to demystify the examination and ease test anxiety. There are several test taking strategy tips geared toward people who suffer from test anxiety inside the study guide, as well. If test anxiety is severe, I usually recommend that candidates learn relaxation techniques that they can employ while taking the test, so that the anxiety does not get in the way of demonstrating their true knowledge.
The practice test may be purchased for $75 and the study guide for $30 plus shipping by contacting ASWB at 800-225-6880 or online at http://www.aswb.org.
10. Can you think of anything readers of The New Social Worker would like to know that I failed to ask?
The North American passing rates for the ASWB examinations are public information. In 2008, 30,767 social workers took one of the examinations, and 21,894 took an examination for the first time. The passing rates for the social workers taking the tests for the first time are:
Advanced Generalist 58%
The passing rate for candidates taking one of the test categories for the first time is the accurate passing rate, because everyone has an equal chance of passing. The passing rate based on the total group reflects statistics for candidates who have failed one or more times before taking the examination, which lowers their chances of passing, and thus lowers the passing rate.
The place to begin making arrangements to take the examinations is with the social work regulatory board in the state or province where the candidate plans to be licensed. Candidates must apply to individual jurisdictions to be eligible for an exam. There is contact information for state and provincial boards on the ASWB Web site, http://www.aswb.org. There is additional information on this Web site in the section on Social Work Licensing Examinations, FAQs.
Stephen M. Marson, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 17, No. 3).