Behind the Questions: Understanding the ASWB Exam

By Amanda Rowan on September 2, 2021

ASWB Exam development

For many social workers, ASWB exam registration means facing one of their biggest fears: taking an exam.  Anxiety sets in when we have to face the unknown. Understanding how tests like the ASWB exam are developed can help to demystify the process, and guide your studying process.

Test anxiety is real. Every day social workers worldwide fret about taking their ASWB exam. Some complain that the exam is unfair and should be eliminated. Others procrastinate while repeating the mantra that they are “...bad at tests.” Very few social workers look forward to ASWB exam registration and the challenge (some might say “crisis!”) of taking a professional social work exam. 

Test-taking fear isn’t limited to the ASWB exam. The assessment industry has been under attack in the United States, particularly in the field of education. Concerns about fairness and bias along with the potential for stress on the student/test taker have led to many educators and--even some schools--eliminating tests from their toolbox.   

This is a shame. Assessments are not only necessary to determine the qualifications of any professional, they are also a critical part of the learning process. Preparing for and taking a (closed book) test cements new information and knowledge. It is difficult to determine if any learning took place without a summative. Tests provide feedback about the individual students' knowledge  while  allowing educators to see whether their teaching methods were effective. In other words, a score on a test is an indicator of the individual’s performance and the quality of the teacher/teaching materials. This is crucial feedback for addressing the valid concerns about fairness and bias the the assessment industry has a moral obligation to address.

Everyone has taken a test, but few understand test development. Whether you are a social worker taking the Bachelors, Masters, Advanced Generalist, or Clinical ASWB exam, all the social work exams have one thing in common: They are standardized tests. Understanding how they are administered and developed can help manage test anxiety so that your energy can be spent preparing rather than fretting!

Standardized tests get a particularly bad rap in the world of assessments.  However, when it comes to assessments of a large group of people, standardized tests like the ASWB Exam are the most objective testing format  because the questions are consistent--that is, the test taker will see the same questions as every other test taker, regardless of test date--and the test is administered in the controlled environment of an assessment center. 

When sitting for the ASWB exam,  many social workers don’t realize how much work and thought went into getting all those test questions ready.  Examination construction is far more complicated than most people think. 

Here is a step-by-step summary of how the ASWB exam gets made:

  1. The ASWB exam standards are developed by fellow social workers who first determine  what it means to be a social worker: Every few years, social workers practicing in a wide variety of settings and geographic locations are surveyed to identify what practices they use in their work. The result of the survey is called a “practice analysis” and it provides the framework for standards that will be tested on the ASWB exam. 
  2. The ASWB Exam Committee then identifies experts in the social work field to write questions based on the standards. The subject matter experts/ASWB item writers undergo extensive training in how to write test questions. Three types of questions are writing: recall, application, and reasoning. 
  3. The ASWB Exam Committee  “test drives” the questions. After the new items are drafted by the subject experts, the ASWB exam committee reviews them. Once the committee approves them, the questions are included on the nationally administered ASWB exams. Of the 170 questions on the ASWB exam, 20 experimental questions that are being evaluated by psychometric experts for reliability and difficulty. These are un-scored.
  4. The ASWB Exam Committee weeds out the questions that are not consistent measures of knowledge and ability. The main measure of this is when a test taker scores well on the rest of the exam but misses the experimental question. 
  5. The ASWB Exam Committee adds the new validated questions into the ASWB exam question test bank and are  used to to create a given ASWB exam.  

As you can see, there is a science behind the standardized test process. And this is a good thing. At one point in California, the social work licensing exam was oral and social workers had to answer questions presented by a panel of social work experts. That panel would not be the same for everyone. This is a highly subjective way of assessing competence and many social workers who failed felt that they had been judged unfairly.  California’s move to a standardized test meant that everyone was judged by the same standard, which is fairness in action.

At the Therapist Development Center, we pride ourselves in our in-depth knowledge of ASWB exams.  Our coaches have all scored in the top 10% of their testing cycle.  But we offer more than just the knowledge of the exams. We also understand the learning process and how best to prepare for the exam.  We offer a system that allows you to “study smart” with the material presented in a way that maximizes your learning in the least amount of time.  And we don’t just want you to pass, we want you to “pass with confidence” and enter your professional life with a thorough foundation to be the best social worker you can be. 


Commenter Name
September 10, 2021

I am fricking out with all the material.

Commenter Name
September 13, 2021

Hi Guadalupe, I'm so sorry to hear you're freaking out! Be sure to reach out to our wonderful LMSW coach through the 'ask a coach' form in your study center with any questions you have. We want you to feel supported all along the way.

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