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Social work entrance to practice exams should be banned in Canada and worldwide if social work professionals want to decolonize their practices. Focusing on relationality and mentorship in professional practice is critical for social workers who practice the Code of Ethics values instead of writing competency exams that only value one way of knowledge demonstration.
Recently, the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers has approved the use of entry-to-practice exams for social work and social service work applicants. The move aligns with the College’s Strategic Plan 2020-23, which includes reviewing registration processes and considering entry-to-practice exams for new social and social service workers. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) will develop and implement the exams. The exams are intended to measure applicants’ readiness to practice and to ensure that only those with specific qualifications are eligible for registration. The development and implementation of the exams are expected to take several years, with the exam requirement not being fully implemented until 2027. The ASWB will consider matters related to accessibility and inclusivity during the development and implementation of the exams. However, in August 2022, the ASWB published its Exam Pass Rate Analysis, which found that racialized candidates historically have lower exam pass rates than Caucasian candidates. More information: https://www.ocswssw.org/applicants/entry-to-practice-exams/
The rationale for banning social work exams:
Implementing an entry-to-practice exam in social work that focuses solely on one way of knowing, such as testing, can harm racialized learners (see more: https://www.aswb.org/exam/contributing-to-the-conversation/ ) and everyone whose social work practice philosophy is not aligned with testing as the only way to demonstrate social work knowledge. Here are some reasons why:
- Bias in Testing: Tests can be culturally biased, meaning they may favour certain cultural or ethnic groups over others. Racialized and non-eurocentric learners may be disadvantaged when taking an entry-to-practice exam designed with a Eurocentric privilege of testing knowledge. This can result in lower scores and a potential barrier to entry into the profession.
- Inequitable Access to Resources: Many racialized and non-eurocentric learners may not have had access to the same financial, educational and other resources and opportunities as their Eurocentric peers and might demonstrate their knowledge using alternative assessment methods (see below alternative for exam). As a result, they may be less familiar with the types of questions and testing methods used on an entry-to-practice exam, which can put them at a disadvantage.
- Limited Understanding of Social Work Practice: An entry-to-practice exam solely focusing on testing may not provide a comprehensive understanding of social work practice. Social work requires a range of skills, including critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving. An exam solely focusing on testing may not accurately assess a candidate’s ability to apply these skills in practice.
- Alternative Assessment Methods: Alternative assessment methods can be used to evaluate a candidate’s suitability for entry into the social work profession. These methods can include building mentorship and relationality as part of professional practice. In addition, these methods may be more inclusive and accessible for racialized and non-eurocentric learners who may not perform well in traditional testing environments.
- Stereotype Threat: Stereotype threat is the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s racial or cultural group. Being in an environment that reinforces these negative stereotypes can impair the performance of racialized and non-eurocentric learners on an entry-to-practice exam.
- Lack of Cultural Sensitivity: An entry to practice exam that solely focuses on testing may not consider the diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences of racialized and non-eurocentric learners, which can negatively impact their performance.
- Limited Validity: Standardized tests may not measure a candidate’s suitability for social work practice. The exam may not accurately measure the skills and knowledge required for successful practice in diverse communities.
- Increased Stress and Anxiety: The pressure to pass an entry-to-practice exam can cause stress and anxiety, negatively impacting the performance of those who do not believe in testing as the only way to measure social work skills.
- Limited Representation of Diverse Perspectives: An entry-to-practice exam solely focusing on testing may not represent diverse perspectives and experiences, limiting the development of culturally responsive social workers.
- Limited Opportunity for Reflection: Reflection is critical to social work practice. An entry-to-practice exam solely focusing on testing may not allow candidates to reflect on their biases and assumptions.
- Limited Assessment of Interpersonal Skills: Social work practice requires strong interpersonal skills like empathy and active listening. An entry-to-practice exam focusing solely on testing may not accurately assess these skills.
- Reinforcement of Power Imbalances: An entry-to-practice exam solely focusing on testing can reinforce power imbalances in the social work profession, negatively impacting the relationship between social workers and their clients.
- Cost of Exam: The exam is not free, so instead of using limited resources, social workers have to prepare for an exam, and privileging one way of knowing, social workers can use the money to spend on professional development activities to attend events that are relevant to their social work practice.
If you know any other reasons to ban social work competency exams, please let me know, and I will add them to the list.
For various reasons, an entry-to-practice exam in social work that solely focuses on testing can harm racialized and non-eurocentric learners in Ontario. Therefore, alternative assessment methods considering diverse perspectives and experiences should be regarded to ensure that all candidates have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and suitability for entry into the profession.
Potential Exam Alternative:
The Candidacy Mentorship Program (CMP) is designed to help new social work graduates in Nova Scotia develop their skills, competence, and professional identity. The program provides mentorship that is different from administrative supervision and is intended to reduce professional stress and promote success. Candidates receive support and structure through regular meetings with their mentors, and all candidacy reports are digital and attached to their member profiles with the College. Candidates are expected to complete 2500 hours of social work practice experience, including up to 500 hours from volunteer experience within the scope of practice, and complete at least 32 hours of meetings with their mentor. The program includes a framework for monitoring and evaluation, and constructive feedback on the learning agreement and reports is provided. The program was revamped in 2019, and a CMP website was launched as a resource for candidates and mentors, which includes activities, resources, and learning objective examples. Candidates who were enrolled in the old candidacy model should contact the College to request forms or discuss transitioning to the current CMP. More information https://nscsw.org/practice/candidacy/
The development of mentorship programs that value relationality and focuses on the social work code of ethics can be more inclusive and support social workers from diverse communities through mentor-mentee social work relationship. It should be a priority for all social work colleges to develop lifelong mentorship programs. Focusing on how to test social workers’ knowledge who already have completed BSW/MSW educational degree requirements and have been evaluated using multiple methods as part of their coursework is a non-inclusive, eurocentric way of practice that needs to be decolonized and not promoted as part of the Colleges action plans.