High-Stakes Testing and ASWB Social Work Licensing Exams

I was browsing for information on the social work licensing exams conducted by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).  Most states require people to pass those exams to become licensed social workers, both at the introductory (e.g., LMSW) and advanced (e.g., LCSW) levels.  While browsing, I came across this interesting albeit obvious admission on ASWB’s website:

The licensing exams are high-stakes exams that can dramatically affect a person’s ability to practice social work.

It seemed appropriate to pause for a moment and compose this post on what I found interesting about that quote.

According to Wikipedia, a high-stakes exam (also known as high-stakes testing) is one that conducts a single assessment, draws a clear line between those who passed and those who failed, and has direct (usually large) consequences for passing or failing.  In the present context, the stakes involved the difference between being able to practice social work or not.

That same Wikipedia page cited numerous criticisms of high-stakes testing.  These criticisms included arguments that a test may not accurately measure a person’s skills or knowledge; that what is tested may differ from what should be measured; that high stakes can yield a distorted impression of the person’s actual capabilities in academic situations and also in real-life situations that do not involve test-taking stresses; that the stakes increase rewards for cheating and manipulation; that the result may reflect upon the student unfairly in cases of social injustice or educational malpractice, for example, where a failing grade results from poor teachers or other disadvantages that could derail even an intelligent and motivated student; and that the consequences for failure can be inordinately embarrassing or handicapping.

Those criticisms were especially interesting in the context of social work training.  During my five or six years as a master’s and PhD-level social work student, I often heard social work professors speak critically of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation because of, among other things, its emphasis upon achievement of high standardized test scores, its implicit denigration of non-core subjects, and its failures in areas related to civil rights.  At this writing, I continued to see various criticisms of high-stakes testing in the educational literature – by Lobman (2013, p. 3), for example, who cited research suggesting that high-stakes testing damaged urban classroom learning climates and amplified levels of stress among students and teachers alike; by Lewin (2010, p. vi), who argued that high-stakes testing tended to “disadvantage the poorest” in Ghana; and, earlier, by La Roche and Shriberg (2004, p. 211), who characterized high-stakes testing as “an extension of societal movements that seek to mute cultural differences and to portray minority children as ‘lazy’ or ‘deficient.’”

I had seen, moreover, that some schools of social work (SSWs) did not require GRE scores from applicants.  Presumably some if not all members of SSW admissions committees were aware that the GRE had drawn criticism on grounds of racial bias; vulnerability to cheating (especially by socioeconomically advantaged individuals who could afford the insights offered by expensive test prep services); misrepresentation of relevant statistical information by Educational Testing Service (ETS), creator of the GRE; and some findings of weak ability to predict graduate school performance.  There was also, ideally, some realization that the costs of the GRE, and of test preparation courses in which some applicants would inevitably invest, could be burdensome for applicants who hailed from poor backgrounds and/or who would go on to relatively low-paying jobs.

Those could all be good reasons not to require the GRE of MSW program applicants. No doubt there were social work admissions officers who found such arguments compelling. For the record, however, in the case of social work, it appeared that other factors might be driving the decision not to require the GRE. As discussed more fully in another post, researchers had observed that SSWs had proliferated and that,  for some years now, admissions officers had been struggling to find enough students to fill classes. Another post demonstrates that even some highly ranked SSWs found it necessary to grant virtually open admission to any candidate meeting minimal requirements.

In other words, it appeared that SSWs would have required the GRE if they had faced a tidal wave of applicants. As in other graduate programs, the GRE would have helped SSWs to narrow the applicant pool to those who would seem to have at least an arguable advantage in graduate school. In SSWs’ actual circumstances, by contrast, the GRE would be an impediment, potentially reducing the numbers of warm bodies and the influx of tuition dollars. Social work education thus appeared to be positioning itself as a bottom feeder, taking qualified students who were particularly interested in this profession along with unqualified students who could not get into other graduate programs.

So when I was hearing social work professors declaim against No Child Left Behind, during my years of social work education, maybe I was hearing a conclusion reached through disinterested inquiry into the drawbacks of standardized testing — or maybe I was just getting the personal bias of professors who, themselves, had mostly failed to get into competitive PhD programs. Maybe they and their audiences, there in my social work classes, shared a fear of tests on which they did not perform very well. That would mesh with ETS data indicating that GRE-takers who did express an intention to study social work had among the lowest average GRE scores of all GRE-takers.

None of this would take away from the possibility that high-stakes testing might be a bad idea in general, or might be ill-suited to social work practice in particular. Certainly the GRE, with its emphasis on skills like math and word association, did not seem closely connected with what a practitioner might get from a master’s-level social work program, as distinct from a PhD program focused on research and publication. Fear of the GRE, or poor performance on it, would not reflect well upon someone who would go on to become a researcher, but might be tolerable or even advantageous in an MSW student whose professional strengths were more oriented toward the interpersonal domain.

From that perspective, it seemed that the social work testing arrangement was somewhat backwards. Even at the master’s level, graduate school is a highly academic enterprise, full of papers and tests. Whether it should be that, in social work — indeed, whether an apprenticeship might provide better professional education — is a question I have addressed in a separate post. But as long as graduate school is the officially approved route, its academic nature logically suggests that the proper time for a standardized entrance exam (be it the GRE or something else) would be at the start of that academic undertaking. A standardized exam at the end of that process, in the form of an ASWB exam that might penalize individuals with great real-world skills, would not necessarily make a lot of sense.

Yet that is the situation in which we find ourselves. It is almost as though the process were deliberately arranged to facilitate large, sophisticated, and interlocking crimes — to use the word commonly applied to schemes in which trusted or leading persons use false statements to obtain money from those who follow or depend upon them. One partner in this crime would be the SSW that eagerly enrolls unqualified individuals in an MSW program where they spend large amounts of time and money, only to find themselves among thousands each year who flunk the standardized ASWB Masters exam in their first try (some of whom would never pass, even after multiple retries). The other partner in this crime would be ASWB, which does use its standardized exam to prevent potentially qualified people from entry into practice, despite evidence (and views expressed by professors in precisely this profession) challenging the relevance of standardized exams for such purposes.

It would be one thing if these two opposing factions were engaged in an ongoing battle — if, that is, the social work professors who did not believe in standardized testing were vigorously advocating an alternative to ASWB, and if ASWB, with its belief in standardized testing, were fighting back against faculty who coddle their students with two years’ worth of assigned papers and take-home exams in lieu of classroom tests. Sadly, there is no such battle. You may find an occasional academic article presenting views on one side or the other; but for the most part, the system clanks onward, unchanged and with little apparent interest in changing.

Students suffer the consequences. Every week, across the nation, social work professors go into their classrooms and teach courses leading up to the MSW degree that supposedly qualifies their students to take the ASWB Masters exam upon graduation — knowing that there is no direct connection between what SSWs teach and what ASWB tests. Every day, those professors pursue intellectual ideas of what social work careers are all about, loosely steered by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) but largely guided by academic literature and their own personal beliefs. Meanwhile, every day, as developed in a separate post, ASWB rakes in money from applicants to take LMSW and LCSW exams that are developed in a manner largely independent of those professors’ academic pursuits.

Students commonly assume that there must be a more or less direct link from their studies to their future practice. It is easy to assume that; it seems obvious that there must be such a link. But for the most part, such a link exists only if the professor decides to invent it. And that is not likely. Social work professors are not generally informed and interested in what ASWB may be testing. This is not hard to imagine, after all: many professors are not licensed themselves. They certainly are not making strenuous efforts to make sure their students master specific material in order to meet ASWB’s concept of professional qualification. It is not a matter of “teaching to the test,” in the sense of memorizing the right solutions to specific problems; it is more a matter of being appropriately in touch with what students need to know in order to progress in their careers — and, if ASWB is to be believed, to be prepared for practice.

Let us clarify that last remark. In a letter to Utah State University (2014), ASWB said this:

ASWB examinations are not intended to be “comprehensive” in the academic sense. The content of a licensure examination is limited to the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for safe and competent practice. This content will comprise only a small portion of the material covered in a bachelor’s or master’s level program in social work. Therefore, it is not appropriate to consider a passing score on a licensure examination an indicator of anything other than entry-level competence.

Fair enough. But entry-level competence is precisely what the large majority of social work students are looking for. A document from CSWE (2013) leads to the same place:

Because the ASWB exams are built on analyses of social work practice and are designed to measure minimal competence for public protection, they should not be used as the sole outcome measure for an educational program. It also would be difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the quality of an educational program based on aggregated test performance or make comparisons on program quality among several programs.

The authors of those two quotations seem to have the idea that students are primarily concerned about developing sophisticated academic evaluations of various social work programs. They aren’t. That’s for the PhD program applicants, at best. Most students at the BSW and MSW level want to become practitioners. Their frequently lackadaisical classroom performance, even in the best schools, makes clear that they would be glad to skip the two years of MSW enrollment if they could just cut to the chase. They may want the MSW if having a good school on their résumé will help them to get a desired job. But that’s still quite a stretch from the assumption, in the foregoing quotes, that most MSW students want to endure the bulk of “the material covered in a bachelor’s or master’s level program.”

Some readers will agree, by this point, that the SSW-ASWB scheme cries out for reform. There would be several ways to proceed in that reform. One possibility would be to reverse the essentially backward process as it now exists. Taking a strengths-oriented rather than faultfinding perspective, suppose we began with a desire to identify and promote those individuals who were most immediately prepared for clinical practice, and to help others along in the most efficient manner. In that case, we might begin with an ASWB-style standardized exam which, building upon that other post, would truly be designed on the basis of actual practice. Standardized exams have the ability to evaluate vast numbers of people quickly. If ASWB is right in treating such exams as appropriate measures of professional preparation, then by all means let us use them at the outset, to approve newcomers who have already obtained the knowledge, skills, and abilities for social work practice through their prior studies and experience, and who therefore don’t need years in graduate school. Reserve the extensive educational orientation to social work — an enormous undertaking that has yet to justify its cost empirically — for those who don’t pass the licensing exam: make it a remedial process targeted at specific shortcomings, not unlike the solution-focused short-term therapies that social work professors often recommend for clients. Finally, commence the research-oriented and theoretical MSW-style education in the continuing education phase, after people enter the field, when they will be much more likely to understand and apply what the professor is going on about — or to detect when the professor is out of touch with reality. A focus on research comprehension in one’s early years in the field could do much to bring research findings into practice — so that, by the time you become an LCSW and are thus licensed to proceed independently, you are less likely to be a quack.

There are reasons why SSWs and ASWB have not committed themselves to any such strengths-oriented approach. Doing so would leave most social work professors unemployed — and, as we can anticipate from Sowell’s Poverty Pimps Poem, that is simply not what SSWs are all about. Nor, as detailed in a separate post, have ASWB’s executive directors displayed much interest in bringing their secretive organization into the glare of media attention, as might ensue if that organization found itself compelled to justify the tens of millions of dollars that it has parasitically extracted from social work jobseekers for the privilege of taking its amateurishly designed tests. Instead, we find ourselves muddling through, with nobody being held to account, our careers determined by high-stakes testing in a profession that claims to dislike it.

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