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date: 03 March 2021

The Association of Social Work Boardsfree

  • M. Jenise ComerM. Jenise ComerUniversity of Central Missouri
  •  and Joyce A. BellJoyce A. BellUniversity of Central Missouri

Summary

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the regulation of social work practice. The Association was created to protect clients and client systems from harm caused by incompetent, unethical, or unlicensed social work practice. The primary and most important responsibility of ASWB is to develop and maintain a national exam that is valid, reliable, and legally defensible. The Association contracts with a test vendor to administer the exam in an identical, secure environment to social work candidates for licensure in the United States, Canada, the U.S. Virgin Island, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the District of Columbia. Accomplishing the task of providing a reliable and valid exam involves a complex process of recruiting and training. The volunteers and staff are competent to complete the arduous task of constructing and reviewing different forms of the exam for each level of licensure. The test vendor and a consulting psychometrician provide supervision and analysis of test data to confirm the test performs at or above industry standards for a high stakes exam, which determines entry to practice based on a passing score.

ASWB staff members also engage in several activities that support state and provincial boards to advance regulation and safe practice. The purpose, mission, and history of ASWB will be presented in detail, along with focused attention on the exam and additional services provided to the regulatory community. Future issues will identify the Board of Director’s 2019 Strategic plan. Opportunities, challenges, and threats to professional regulation include attention to international social work practice regulation, license mobility, and deregulation.

Introduction

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) is comprised of state boards that regulate the practice of social work in each U.S. and Canadian jurisdiction. ASWB develops and administers all categories (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Advanced Generalist, and Clinical) of the national exam for candidates pre-approved by a specific member jurisdiction to take the appropriate ASWB exam. ASWB provides services to member boards that advance regulation to protect the public from incompetent, unethical, or unlicensed practice of social work.

The purpose of social work is to promote human and community well-being (CSWE, 2015). Effective practice requires competent use of practice knowledge, values, and skills with all consumers. Applicants for licensure complete a qualifying degree (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, or Master’s) accredited by a national accrediting organization including the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) or the Canadian Association on Social Work Education (CASWE) and pass an appropriate examination offered by ASWB. Other requirements may be established by the home jurisdiction. A license provides evidence that a social worker has demonstrated the minimal level of competence required for safe practice.

Mary Jo Monahan (CEO of ASWB from 2013–2020) asserted in an article written for the March 2019 issue of the New Social Worker that licensed professions, including social work, are legislatively declared as a “professional practice affecting public health, safety, and welfare and … subject to regulation and control in the public interest.” This statement is extremely important as we consider the role ASWB plays in helping to enforce the legislative mandate.

Licensed practice is a social justice issue, particularly as health and behavioral health services are often provided to consumers with complex experiences. Many clients are also members of vulnerable populations. Both factors require the services of professionals who demonstrate knowledge, values, and skills, express empathy and cultural sensitivity, and are committed to do no harm. State licensing boards in the United States and provincial colleges in Canada provide recourse to consumers who have been harmed by a licensed social worker or an unlicensed practitioner.

ASWB also plays an important role in public protection by developing and administering exams for licensing in all four categories, annually updating the Social Work Model Practice Act, maintaining the Public Protection Database, and certifying continuing education courses through the Approved Continuing Education (ACE) program. ASWB’s core mission is to provide support and services to the social work regulatory community to advance safe, competent, and ethical practices to strengthen public protection (ASWB, 2020).

Purpose of Regulation and Licensure

Regulation is a function of state and provincial governments to protect citizens from harm while receiving services from professionals. Puerto Rico passed the first social work statute in 1934. California passed social work practice regulation in 1945 (Bibus & Boutté-Queen, 2011; CSWE, 2018). Licensure reflects the development of the social work profession, evolving from friendly visitors to mental health professionals and macro-practitioners. The issuance of a social work license represents an externally validated level of competence achieved by attaining a degree, obtaining supervised experience (where appropriate), and passing an acceptable examination. The licensee is accountable to the public for ethical and competent practice and meeting jurisdictional requirements for continued practice, including continuing education (CSWE, 2018). Despite the variation in requirements and license titles, all jurisdictions share a common purpose: “To establish in statute a set of legally enforceable minimum standards to which social work licensees are held accountable” (Seidl, 2000). ASWB maintains a database of information about social work regulation and licensure requirements as a service to the ASWB member organizations and the public. This also includes information regarding jurisdiction reports, supervisory requirements, and continuing education policies.

The 2018 Curricular Guide for Licensure and Regulation acknowledges that differences exist both within the profession and among educators that date back to the beginnings of regulatory discussions (Bibus & Boutte-Queen, 2011; CSWE, 2018). Garcia (1990) identifies the benefits of licensed practice to include providing the profession with a legal definition, protecting client rights, raising competency levels, providing accountability to the public, and maintaining comparability to other professions in status and vendor eligibility (CSWE, 2018; Garcia, 1990).

The nature of practice experiences was reflected in initial reactions to regulations. Micro practitioners expressed concerns about continuing work with individual clients, families, and small groups. Mezzo practitioners, who work with medium-sized systems, and macro practitioners involved with large systems and communities questioned opportunities for professional recognition as many states only issued a clinical license.

Opposing viewpoints assert that regulation of social work practice is elitist, exclusionary, discriminatory in requirements, restrictive to the available workforce, cumbersome, expensive, and duplicative (Bibus & Boutté-Queen, 2011; CSWE, 2018; Garcia, 1990). Macro practitioners involved with community organizing, planning, and administration have criticized licensure and regulation as favoring clinical practice over macro practice (CSWE, 2018; Donaldson, Fogel, Hill, Erickson, & Ferguson, 2016; Donaldson, Hill, Ferguson, Fogel, & Erickson, 2014; Hill, Fogel, Donaldson, & Erickson, 2017). Some researchers have called for clearer and more focused licensure designations for macro practice and greater macro practitioner representation on jurisdictional boards (CSWE, 2018; Donaldson et al., 2016; Hill et al., 2017).

The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), founded in 1968, immediately registered opposition to social work licensure based on several factors. One concern addressed paraprofessionals and baccalaureate social workers employed in community and indigenous programs, who understood and practiced with cultural competence. These seasoned professionals provided critical and effective social services to minorities and special populations. They would no longer be allowed to practice social work as defined by law or use a restricted title, such as “licensed social worker.” The same concern was echoed by employees of public social service agencies. Patricia Reid-Merritt included the NABSW 1983 Position Paper on Social Work Licensing in her book Righteous Self-Determination: The Black Social Work Movement in America (Reid-Merritt, 2010). Many state statutes included exemptions for state workers and a time-limited grandfather clause that allowed social workers with demonstrated competence in lieu of the required degree to get licensed at the clinical level.

All member boards and several Canadian provinces have a statute that, according to Dyeson (2004), declares who is allowed to use a restricted title, establish a licensing board, set continuing education requirements, and establish disciplinary procedures that protect the public and provide due process for licensees. Regulation is an essential tool in the professionalization of social work practice. As stated by Mary Jo Monahan (2019), regulations established standards and a title (that may only be used by licensees) and defines a scope of practice (tied to each category of licensure) that includes activities that may only be performed by those licensed or otherwise authorized by the jurisdiction’s laws.

History of AASSWB and ASWB

The 1969 Delegate Assembly of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) approved a resolution to pursue licensing of social work practice in each state (Marks & Knox 2015; Thayer & Biggerstaff, 1989). The Association presented its Policy Statement on Licensing Issues, which promoted regulation of the profession, in 1974. (NASW, 1974) The social work profession recognized that self-regulation of practice using the NASW Code of Ethics was not enough to ensure public protection, as it only relied on voluntary compliance. Regulation is a function of the state’s police powers to protect the public. NASW worked to draft legislation in several states to further public protection and professional recognition, and to assure receipt of third party reimbursement for social workers (Reid-Merritt, 2010).

NASW initiated the first meeting, as it saw the licensure exam as an extension of its Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) certification, administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS). Other professionals saw NASW’s role in developing a licensing exam as a conflict of interest

Following NASW’s direction, ASWB started when a small group of social work administrators and professionals, who had a clear vision and commitment to the profession and to the public, volunteered their time and energy to advance safeguards for people in unfortunate or tragic circumstances. The group also focused on having an association dedicated to ensuring that its own members help, rather than hurt (AASSWB, 1999). From the beginning, there were also concerns about different exams developed by each state, which restricted the mobility of licensees. This was especially challenging for social workers licensed in northern Virginia, who crossed physical boundaries to practice in Maryland and Washington, DC (AASSWB, 1999). By 1978, only 23 states had some kind of regulation (AASSWB, 1999).

A group of state regulators met to plan for a new association to advance regulation and develop a national exam. The first meeting of the proposed American Association of State Social Work Boards (AASSWB) was held September 24–26, 1978, with more than 23 individuals in attendance representing 12 states (AASSWB, 1999). The Constitution and By-Laws Committee met on November 29 of that year, and the AASSWB was incorporated in Virginia in March 1979. A week later, on March 23, 1979, the Constitutional Convention of the AASSWB was attended by representatives from 18 states. Those in attendance also included members of state licensing boards, paraprofessionals and staff from public agencies, other mental health care professionals, representatives from the National Federation of Societies for Clinical Social Work, and lawmakers (AASSWB, 1999). Lawmakers saw no need for “adding layers of government” (AASSWB, 1999). The NABSW posited that regulation would establish “an elitist hierarchy within the profession” (Reid-Merritt, 2010).

The group decided the new organization would address the needs of regulatory boards in addition to developing the national exam. In 1983, 464 candidates from five different states took the first exam offered by AASSWB for licensure in more than one jurisdiction.

By 1992, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands passed social work regulation. Alberta became the first Canadian province to join the association in 1998. In 1999 the Delegate Assembly changed the association’s name to the Association of Social Work Boards to include members who did not represent a state board.

Membership

The association is composed of the social work regulatory boards in all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and all 10 provincial colleges in Canada (ASWB, 2019). Membership in the association requires approval by the ASWB’s board of directors and involves a contractual agreement between the association and the social work licensing board or college. Member boards must agree to use the exams in accordance with ASWB policies and pay annual dues to be eligible for benefits and services provided by the association (ASWB, 2019).

Current Programs and Services

ASWB identifies the range of services to member boards in its 2019 New Board Member Training Manual (ASWB, 2019a).

As stated in the manual, the range of voluntary services provided by the association has expanded to meet the needs of its membership. As an extension of the services directly to its members, ASWB also works to educate social workers, legislators, schools of social work, and the public on issues related to licensure and regulation. Content and format range from explanations of examination construction to discussions of broad regulatory issues such as exemptions and internet-based practice. There is no cost to member boards for the following services and those of the social work profession.

Public Protection Database (PPD)

The PPD is a repository of information on U.S. and Canadian regulatory board actions and activities taken relative to licensees and licensure applicants. This cooperative effort among boards has resulted in an effective tool for board use during license application and renewal processes. Boards can use the PPD as a flagging system—particularly when reviewing an application from a social worker previously licensed in another jurisdiction.

NPDB Reporting Service

The U.S. federal government now requires all health-related regulatory bodies to submit regular disciplinary reports to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). ASWB has been approved as an official reporting agent for social work boards and can process and forward a member board’s reports to the federal system.

Regulatory Training and Leadership Programs

The association offers training sessions intended to help new members of regulatory boards become familiar with their roles, the responsibilities of the regulatory board, and the ways in which ASWB can help. Programs are also offered for member board administrative staff and board chairs to help them understand their roles. These trainings have been developed over the years based on member needs and requests. One Administrators Workshop is held every two years, usually in the fall. ASWB will provide the sessions where needed upon request. Attendance is funded by ASWB for a limited number of participants at each session.

ASWB Approved Continuing Education (ACE) Program

The ASWB ACE program helps boards, continuing education (CE) providers, and social workers by standardizing continuing education approval and identifying high-quality continuing education programs. ACE approval from ASWB is an acknowledgment of a CE provider’s qualifications to present, monitor, and maintain quality social work continuing education offerings. Boards use ACE approval status in a variety of ways, from accepting all CE offered by ACE providers to using ACE approval as one factor in reviews of CE.

Joint Accreditation Collaboration

In 2018, ASWB joined the Joint Accreditation collaborative, which allows participating providers of interprofessional continuing education to extend their offerings to social workers on the health care team and use the ACE logo in their credit listings.

ASWB Social Work Registry (Now PROfile)

The registry was designed as a repository for social worker credential information and to serve as a verification source for social work boards. ASWB is integrating the registry, now called PROfile, into the applications platform being developed to provide member boards streamlined access to ASWB services, including documentation for social workers who enroll in the ASWB PROfile service.

Continuing Education Audit Service

The association is available to conduct audits of licensee continuing education compliance for purposes of license renewal. Contracts for this service are created to fit the individual needs of member boards.

Application Processing

The association can serve as a screening service for the processing of initial licensure applications and the issuance (after member board approval) of final licensure documents and notification. Contracts for this service are created to fit the individual needs of member boards.

Model Social Work Practice Act

Initially state statutes were passed at different times without regard to one another, which challenged mobility and the use of a national exam (AASSWB, 1999). The first ASWB model act was approved by the Delegate Assembly in 1997, 18 years after the association was incorporated. The model act is a resource designed to provide regulatory boards with a practice act that draws on best practices. The ASWB Model Social Work Practice Act contains laws, regulations, and accompanying explanations that can help boards that are attempting to amend their own laws and regulations.

MovingSocialWork.org

MovingSocialWork.org is a website dedicated to ASWB’s initiative for social work practice mobility and license portability.

ASWB Website/Members Website

The association’s website (aswb.org) supplies visitors with extensive information on social work regulation and the examinations. The ASWB website places special emphasis on providing information to social workers who want to learn more about licensure and continuing education and includes regulatory information from every state and province. The members website is dedicated to member boards, organized to provide information useful to regulators.

Administrators Email Group

Staff of regulatory boards may participate in an ASWB-sponsored email group that encourages discussion of issues and the sharing of information electronically. The administrator message list is used extensively by administrators to post questions.

Education Conference

The annual education conference allows members of social work regulatory boards to participate in programs delivered by internationally recognized speakers, as well as by leaders within ASWB. Past meeting topics have included continuing competence, social work ethics, supervision, internet-based practice, and practice mobility.

Administrators Forum

This meeting, scheduled twice a year to coincide with each Education Conference and Annual Meeting of the Delegate Assembly, provides an opportunity for social work board administrators to discuss mutual concerns and interests and share ideas.

Board Member Exchange

These meetings support regulatory leadership development of ASWB board members through the sharing of experiences and mentoring, regulatory education, and problem-solving. Meetings take place twice a year, at the Education Conference and the Annual Meeting of the Delegate Assembly.

Social Media

ASWB maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest to increase outreach and quickly disseminate information to exam candidates and other stakeholders.

Regulatory Research Department

ASWB provides regulatory research and information including a regulatory database and attendance/presentations at member board meetings. The Regulatory Research department also monitors proposed changes and new legislation in social work regulation across member jurisdictions.

ASWB Publications

The association offers a range of publications on different topics. These include:

Association News

The bimonthly e-newsletter keeps member boards up to date on issues and activities within the Association and throughout the regulatory community;

Model Regulatory Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice

These standards were developed to help guide social work regulators as they consider how to embrace technology and regulate its use in social work practice.

Technology Standards for Social Work Practice

The standards for technology in social work practice were written through the collaboration of NASW, CSWE, the Clinical Social Work Association, and ASWB after publication of ASWB’s Model Regulatory Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice. The practice standards, published by NASW, are complementary to the regulatory technology standards and provide guidance for social work professionals.

Social Work Laws and Regs Database

This online database contains information on every social work regulatory board in the United States and Canada.

Keep Your Board from Riding Off into the Sunset

Regulatory boards facing so-called “sunset” provisions in the United States can use to help them prepare for the review process.

Legislative Resources

To support members’ education and advocacy efforts, ASWB has prepared talking points about social work regulation topics. ASWB is always willing to add topics upon request. ASWB will also submit letters supporting regulation of social work to legislatures upon request. (search aswb.org).

Informational Brochures

ASWB produces a variety of brochures on different topics, ranging from the basics of licensure to advice to social workers seeking continuing education to brochures about the role of regulation in public protection (search aswb.org).

Curricular Guide for Licensing and Regulation

This guide was developed through the collaboration of CSWE, NASW Insurance Group Risk Retention Group, and ASWB to explain how licensing and regulation relate to the nine competencies required for social work program accreditation by CSWE. The guide, published by CSWE, is available to all social work faculty and includes in-class activities, assignments, and field experiences designed to help students understand the impact of licensing on their social work practice.

The following services are offered to social work educators and exam candidates:

The Path to Licensure Institute

This program selects social work program scholars who apply to increase their knowledge of regulation, and to engage in scholarly research related to regulatory issues. They develop a plan to improve program curriculum content at their schools to better prepare students for licensed practice. The program is presented under the auspices of the Foundation. The Foundation activities are performed in-house by the Regulatory Research Department while the 2019-2021 strategic framework is operationalized to determine how the Foundation will function.

Exam Guide and Online Practice Tests

For candidates preparing for the social work examinations, the association publishes the ASWB Guide to the Social Work Exams, 2nd edition, as well as full-scale online practice tests for the Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Clinical examinations.

Group Review Practice Tests

The association offers sets of sample test questions for use in group instructional settings by accredited social work educational programs.

Exam Development Department

The ASWB Examination Development program is central to ASWB’s operations and one of the most important services that ASWB offers to its members and the social work profession. The examinations and examination-related products typically represent 80% of the association’s revenues.

ASWB maintains four exam categories and has defined the intended purpose of each examination as follows:

Associate. This examination has been developed for use as a licensure requirement by member boards that issue licenses to non-social work-degreed applicants. The test questions are the same as the Bachelor’s exam but are scored differently.

Bachelor’s. This examination has been developed for use as a licensure requirement by member boards that issue to Baccalaureate (degreed) Social Workers upon entry to practice, licenses for basic generalist practice of Baccalaureate Social Work.

Master’s. This examination has been developed for use as a licensure requirement by member boards that issue to MSWs, upon entry to practice, licenses for Master’s Social Work practice. The practice of Master’s Social Work includes the application of specialized knowledge and advanced practice skills. The Master’s license is appropriate for faculty and macro practitioners who do not plan to complete supervision for an advanced level of practice.

Advanced Generalist. This examination has been developed for use as a licensure requirement by member boards that issue, to MSWs with two or more years of experience in non-clinical settings, licenses for Advanced Generalist social work practice. Advanced generalist social work occurs in non-clinical settings that may include macro-level practice.

Clinical. This examination has been developed for use as a licensure requirement by member boards that issue, to MSWs with two or more years of experience in clinical settings, licenses for the practice of Clinical Social Work. The practice of Clinical Social Work requires the application of specialized clinical knowledge and advanced clinical skills (ASWB, 2017a).

Exam prep materials are available for purchase to candidates, including full item practice exams for each category of license. Social work programs may also purchase group exams for use to prepare students and alumni for the exam.

Governance Structure

One delegate and one alternate from member boards gather for a two-day business meeting known as the Annual Meeting of the Delegate Assembly, the governing body of the association. The assembly elects a slate of candidates vetted to serve on the board of directors and the nominating committee. The nominating committee’s goal is to achieve diverse leadership based on geographic location, gender, race, and other demographics.

When the Delegate Assembly is not in session, the association is governed by an 11-member board of directors, who meet four times each year. The board is responsible for maintaining financial oversight, engaging in generative forward-thinking discussions, and resolving exam issues. The most important task the board fulfills is to hire, evaluate, and support the Chief Executive Officer. The CEO is responsible for managing the operations of the association.

National Examinations Provide Consistent Measure of Minimal Competence

According to Heisler and Bagalman (2013), every mental health care profession uses an exam to determine minimal competence as a requirement for licensure. The authors compare five mental health provider types identified by the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA). Clinical social workers are the most plentiful provider type.

ASWB’s primary responsibility is to develop and deliver a valid, reliable, and legally defensible national exam program that demonstrates minimal competence to protect the public from unethical or incompetent social work practice. Earning a passing score on the high stakes exam determines the candidate’s ability to practice in the profession. Psychometricians test examinations to verify the reliability and validity of the examination. Standard measures indicate that the ASWB exams make the best possible pass/fail decisions for competent/incompetent candidates (Marson, DeAngelis, & Mittal, 2010). The public is protected when minimally competent candidates pass the exam, minimally incompetent candidates do not pass the exam, and repeated attempts yield consistent results.

Validity refers to the degree to which evidence and theory support the interpretations of test scores entailed by the proposed uses of tests (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999). Validity is an argument for assessment of the evidence that the test measures what it is supposed to measure (Marson et al., 2010). Reliability is an estimate of consistency of test scores—the degree to which examinees score the same thing over replications of a measurement procedure (Brennan, 2001). ASWB engages in a psychometrically sound process with several safeguards to ensure all tests continue to be fair, valid, reliable, and legally defensible. The process begins with the practice analysis.

The Practice Analysis

ASWB policy mandates that a practice analysis be conducted every five to seven years (ASWB, 2017a). The first was completed in 1981, in preparation for the first national exam. The sixth Practice Analysis was completed between 2015 - 2016 to prepare for the 2018 exams (ASWB, 2017b). A 20-member practice analysis task force was selected from more than 300 U.S. and Canadian social work applicants. The task force developed the survey content and reviewed the wording and format of the survey’s 164 task and 229 knowledge statements. A French version of the survey was made available to jurisdictions where English is not the official language.

The survey is sent to diverse practitioners employed in different practice settings. Survey responses identify what tasks social workers perform in their jobs, how often the tasks are performed, the current knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required to perform the task, and how critical that knowledge is for competent beginning practitioners (ASWB, 2017a). The highest number of usable surveys ever received were analyzed in preparation for the 2018 exams (ASWB, 2017a).

Test construction begins with the survey, which provides content validity for the exam. The task force reviewed the survey results and established content percentages for examination blueprints. Eight exam form reviewers selected the questions for the four test forms that became the anchor exams from the new blueprints. The passing score study panel of 54 subject matter experts (SME) from the United States and Canada assisted in determining the cut score for the anchor exams (ASWB, 2017a).

The same attention to diversity and varied social work practice experience is reflected in the selection of trained contract item writers, a requirement to become future members of the exam committee. ASWB exam questions are written at a 10th grade reading level, which is appropriate for a profession that requires a Bachelor’s or higher degree for entry to practice (ACT, 1998; ASWB, 2017a; Marson et al., 2010).

The exam committee’s task is to create, review, and maintain different forms of the exam for 1998 all four categories of practice. The 18-member committee meets four weekends a year to evaluate, revise, or retire new and problem items. New and revised items are submitted for pretest, and every item is tracked from that point until it is retired. Problem items are analyzed for differential item functioning (DIF) to confirm that item performance is not unfairly influenced by geographical region, race or ethnicity, gender, or level of proficiency in English (ACT, 1998; Marson et al., 2010; Mittal, 2004). Changes in statistical item performance (DRIFT) are also addressed as problem items. The committee will either approve revised items for pretest or the item will be archived.

Every exam is administered in a standardized setting provided by the test vendor. Candidates are allowed up to four hours to answer 170 questions. Twenty of those questions are pretest items analyzed for performance but not scored. A score of 70 or better on the 150 remaining items is required to pass the exam. Candidates may request approval for accommodations from their state board for documented special needs. Accommodations are based on specific need and may include extra time to take the exam, readers if necessary, and English and Spanish dictionaries for English as a second language (ESL) candidates.

The ASWB social work licensing examination program has had regular independent psychometric evaluations (Marson et al., 2010). Different consulting psychometricians involved with developing the 2008 and 2018 exams have both confirmed that ASWB consistently exceeds industry standards to ensure their exams remain valid, reliable, and legally defensible as documented in the Summary of the Analysis of the Practice of Social Work (2017b).

The 2017 Analysis of the practice of social work presents a final report of the 2016 practice analysis.

Challenges to Professional Licensure and Regulation

The association was established to advance regulation and to develop a national exam. Both efforts were intended to meet the need for licensure mobility. Social workers are increasingly more likely to use technology to offer professional services in the next state or another country than to physically cross jurisdictional boundaries to practice. This raises questions about licensure in multiple jurisdictions and, more importantly, effective disciplinary systems that provide public protection, including funding for the jurisdiction(s) that must engage in disciplinary investigations, hearings, and action. The NASW, ASWB, CSWE, and Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice (NASW, 2017) and several state statutes require the social worker to be licensed both in the jurisdiction where they live and where services are delivered to the client (NASW, 2017).

The 2018 Regulation and Standards (RAS) committee recognized that 49 of 52 U.S. jurisdictions (92%) have provisions for licensure by endorsement (ASWB, 2018). They recommended changes to the Model Social Work Practice Act to advance mobility through endorsement, which was approved at the Delegate Assembly in November 2018. “When states offer licensure by endorsement, that means they accept the social worker’s current license as sufficient evidence that the licensee has met some or all of the requirements of licensure” (ASWB, 2017c).

ASWB is one of several long-term governing members of the Federation of Associations and Regulatory Boards (FARB). FARB’s mission is to advance excellence in regulation of the professions in the interest of public protection (FARB, 2019). The ASWB board of directors provided financial support and joined the Amicus Brief in response to the Supreme Court case involving the South Carolina Dental Board v. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). FARB conducts regular workshops and forums to educate regulatory board members, staff, and attorneys, maintains a library of top regulatory cases, drafts talking points, and provides other resources for best practices.

Future Opportunities and Challenges

To address concerns raised about licensing for educators and macro practitioners, the Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) category, which requires no supervision, should be recognized as the appropriate license. The Advanced Generalist license is available in some states for macro practitioners who wish to complete the required hours of supervision identified in state statutes.

The 2018 Delegate Assembly approved the 2019–2021 Strategic Framework, which includes three goals: the association aims to (a) increase knowledge and acceptance of social work as a licensed profession with a vision that all social workers will be licensed; (b) facilitate mobility through licensure by endorsement; and (c) curate research for best practices in regulation (ASWB, 2019b).

Another important consideration is the role of social work practice in international arenas. ASWB is collaboratively exploring its potential role in international social work practice and regulation with representatives from the Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation (CLEAR) International Congress, the International Federation of Social work Regulators, (IFSWR) and the International Federation of Social Workers (ISFW).

Current challenges to social work regulation include the FTC’s Economic Liberty Task Force’s focus on occupational and professional practice. Concerns have been raised about barriers related to entry to practice and restraint of trade. The political climate favors deregulation, as does the Institute for Justice, a conservative organization challenging licensure in professions and occupations.

The implications of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision on the North Carolina Dental Board identifies challenges to scope of practice issues (teeth whitening by unlicensed persons). This relates to tasks that may or may not be performed by social workers and other behavioral health practitioners.

Challenges also exist relative to cultural bias in education and examinations that are only offered in English, affecting entry to the profession and culturally appropriate services to consumers.

ASWB will work collaboratively with board members, staff, member boards, and FARB to maintain exam security, which is paramount, and neutralize threats to social work regulation.

Legacy

ASWB was started 40 years ago by a few volunteers concerned about public protection and practice mobility and portability. In 2018, over 50,000 exams were administered. Almost 50 volunteers from most states and six jurisdictions meet in committees to further the work of the association. Staff, volunteers, and test vendors remain dedicated to delivering a fair, valid, reliable, and legally defensible exam program that measures the minimal level of competence required for safe practice to protect the public. Programs and services designed to meet the needs of member boards include research and advocacy in response to legislative challenges to regulation.

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank our colleagues identified below for their contributions to this article.

Kathleen Hoffman, retired ASWB Deputy Director, J. Toni Oliver Ph.D., MSW. Immediate Past President, National Association of Black Social Workers and Consultant, and Denise McLane Davison, Ph.D., MSW. Associate Professor, Morgan State University and Historian and Archives Committee National Chairperson, National Association of Black Social Workers.

Further Reading

References

  • ACT. (1998, November). Readability analysis of licensure exams for the American Association of State Social Work Boards (AASSWB). Unpublished manuscript.
  • AERA (American Educational Research Association), APA (American Psychological Association), & NCME (National Council on Measurement in Education). (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: Author.
  • AASSWB (American Association of State Social Work Boards). (1999). Are we there yet? The first 20 years of an association’s visionary journey. The American Association of State Social Work Boards: Culpeper, VA.
  • ASWB. (2018). Endorsement language is key. Association News, 28(4).
  • ASWB. (2019b). Strategic framework.
  • ASWB. (2020). ASWB mission.
  • Bibus, A. A., & Boutté-Queen, N. (2011). Regulating social work: A primer on licensing practice. Chicago, IL: Lyceum.
  • Brennan, R. (2001). An essay on the history and future of reliability from the perspective of replications. Journal of Educational Measurement, 38, 295–317
  • Council on Social Work Education. (2015). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.
  • CSWE (Council on Social Work Education). (2018). Curricular guide for licensing and regulation. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.
  • Donaldson, L. P., Fogel, S. J., Hill, K., Erickson, C., & Ferguson, S. (2016). Attitudes toward advanced licensing for macro social work practice. Journal of Community Practice, 24(1), 77–93.
  • Donaldson, L. P., Hill, K., Ferguson, S., Fogel, S., & Erickson, C. (2014). Contemporary social work licensure: Implications for macro social work practice and education. Social Work, 59(1), 52–61.
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