Berkeley TreeSocial Work Test Prep talked to Stan Taubman of Berkeley Training Associates via email about how he found himself in the exam-prep field, what BTA does, and how they do it:

What's your background? How did you become a test-prep person?

I am a clinical social worker, with an MSW from UCLA and a PhD in Social Work from the University of Southern California. In the 7 year period between my MSW and entering the PhD program I had clinical experience in child welfare, medical social work, private practice, and at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute in outpatient, inpatient and day treatment programs. It was during this period of time that I took my own license exam. Although I had been very successful in my clinical practice I was amazed to see how little preparation I had received for licensure from my degree program. Then, when I was in my very vigorous PhD program I learned to articulate so much of what I had been experiencing (but couldn't easily articulate) in my clinical practice. I took copious notes in my doctoral classes, and thoroughly poured through the clinical practice literature and research in my doctoral studies. I remember how I wished I had this information when I had taken my own license exam. Then, when a friend told me how ill prepared she felt she was for her forthcoming license exam, I offered to type up and present her with the relevant portions of my notes. Happily she found that these materials helped her articulate what she had previously known by intuition.....just what she needed for her license exam preparation. I was able to use my clinical experience to understand the issues of the license exam, and use my academic training to articulate these issues in a way that others could clearly understand.

I gave her permission to lend these notes to some friends who were also preparing for their license exams, and they came back with the same positive feedback. From that point forward requests to see these materials snowballed, without any advertising on my part. It then became clear that I had the seeds of a thorough License Exam Home Study Course. Subsequently I began teaching clinical practice classes at USC, San Diego State, and UC Berkeley and found that, unlike many others on faculty who had strictly academic backgrounds, I was able to present material in a way that would be useful to my students in their future license exams, as well as teaching what's needed for day to day clinical practice. At that point I added workshops to our written exam preparation materials. Initially I didn't set out to create a business, but Berkeley Training Associates is something that grew in response to demand out of these experiences.

How does BTA differ from some of the other exam preparation services?

QUALITY: Quality is our most important characteristic. All BTA materials are written by a licensed psychotherapist who has had at least 10 years of clinical experience in at least five different practice settings (fields of practice) as well as at least 10 years of experience teaching on the faculties of major universities. No BTA materials are written by any individual with less experience than that. Although other programs offer complementary consultation as part of their home study package, all BTA consultations are provided by an author of the materials. I believe that no other social work exam preparation service can make this claim. I have heard customers say that they have been frustrated by consultations from other programs in which the consultant provided an opinion but without any documented reference. All BTA consultations provide documented references for our information whenever requested by the customer.

I believe that no other California based social work exam preparation service can make this claim. This quality is evident to our customers. When we are contacted by someone who is considering purchasing home study materials we often provide them with the name and phone numbers of other exam preparation programs so that they can compare the quality of information they receive.

SOCIAL WORK SPECIALISTS: Our social work exam preparation materials have been written only by social workers, and the majority of our advertising outreach, workshops and sales are specifically developed for social workers. None of our social work exam preparation materials have been written by MFT's, nor are they materials that were originally written for MFT's and then modified for social workers. I believe that no other California based social work exam preparation service can make this claim.

INTEGRATED PREPARATION FOR CALIFORNIA'S TWO EXAMS. Perhaps because we specialize in social work exam preparation we are keenly aware of the fact that both the LCSW Standard Written Esxam and the LCSW Clinical Vignette Exam use exactly the same Content Outline. The major differences between the two exams is (a) the amount of emphasis across these Content Areas and (2) the question format. We provide customers with a single set of Home Study materials that address the content of both exams, while also providing them with specialized Practice Exams for each type of exam. This provides the customer with a unified set of information, but specialized experience with the two exam formats.

COMPLEMENTARY PHONE CONSULTATIONS. As noted above, all BTA consultations are provided are provided by an author of the Home Study Course materials and provide customers with documented references for the information presented in the consultation whenever requested by the customer. In addition, we make Phone Consultations available to the customer's supervisor as well as to the customer..

PRICE: Our prices are somewhat lower than those of other major exam preparation services for comparable types of products. Also, BTA prices include sales tax and postage.

UPDATES: Throughout the year we seek feedback from customers who have completed their exams for feedback about what aspects of our materials were helpful or not helpful. We also ask about what additional information might make the materials more useful for future exam candidates, and we regularly update our materials based on this feedback. Previous customers who have not yet taken their license exams are entitled to receive complementary copies of these updates.

FLEXIBLE AVAILABILITY OF PRODUCTS: Our customers have the option of purchasing a Complete Home Study Course, but those who do not need all components of the Complete Home Study Course have the option of purchasing Home Study Course components separately.

PRACTICE EXAMINATIONS: BTA Practice Exams are available in the customer's choice of either Online or Printed in a book. Also we provide 5 Practice Exams for the Standard Written Exam and 8 Clinical Vignette Practice Exams. Customers who choose the Online version have a full 5 months of access and can take the Practice Exams and clear answers as many times as they choose during this period. (Others have fewer exams or their online exams are accessible for a shorter period of time) Additional months are also available at a small cost. In addition to our Practice Exams our Complete Home Study Course also includes over 250 Clinical Review Questions which serve as a posttest of the information in our License Exam Review Workbook. The following are additional features of BTA Online Practice Examinations (note that some of these features may be available in Practice Examinations of other companies); all answers are fully explained, both why the correct answer is correct and why each incorrect answer is incorrect; customer can switch between exam mode (where answers are hidden) and study mode (where customer can choose to see the question's category, answer, and explanation for the answer); answers are stored if the customer leaves the website and returns later; the Practice Exams have a timer on the screen; scoring is automatic and analyzed by exam Content Area.

WORKSHOPS: All BTA exam preparation workshops are taught by the same individual so that those attending more than one type of workshop receive information that is consistent, integrated with information received at the other type of workshop, and without irrelevant duplication of information. All handouts and sample exam questions provided at BTA workshops are written by the same individual who wrote the components of the BTA Home Study Course. Again, this means that the handouts received in a workshop are consistent with and integrated with information provided in BTA Home Study Course materials.

PASS GUARANTEE. We do not present customers with the concept of a "pass guarantee."  It appears that companies which do so (a) don't really guarantee passing, but actually guarantee a refund, (b) have multiple requirements which must be met in order to receive the refund, (c) charge the customer for the "pass guarantee," (d) apply the refund only to a portion of the amount paid by the customer, (e) require that the customer return their study materials, even though it is likely to have the customer's highlighting, underlining, and marginal study notes, thereby greatly reducing the likelihood of the customer claiming the refund. We have been contacted by many customers after failing the exam after having used study materials which came with a "pass guarantee," and we always ask these customers if they have claimed their refund from the other company. Although I can recall a few such customers saying that they inquired about such a refund, I can't recall a single customer ever saying that they actually received such a refund....usually because the customer decided that they didn't want to part with their study notes, but sometimes because one or more of the technical requirrements for the refund were not met. We can understand why a company might need to have such requirements in order to afford to offer a "pass guarantee" but we have not be willing to relate to customers in this way. Note, however, that BTA does offer a Satisfaction Guarantee. Customers may return materials up to 30 days after receiving them, for a full refund of the amount paid, and without having to give a reason for the return.

PASS RATE: We don't advertise a specific "pass rate," although we do survey customers to determine their pass rates and we have found pass rates as high or higher than those advertised by other companies. As you may know, the general pass rates for LCSW license exams varies dramatically from one six month period to another. General pass rates for the CA LCSW Standard Written Exam have been as high as 72% and as low as 32%. General pass rates for the CA LCSW Clinical Vignette Exam have been as high as 65% and as low as 38%. Obviously the pass rate for those who use a particular company's study materials will be much higher when the general pass rate is much higher, and will be lower than that when the general pass rate is much lower than that. A valid and meaningful presentation of a company's pass rate would have to (a) present these variations, (b) be based on a very large sample, (c) be based on a truly randomly selected sample of customers (or inlude each and every customer), (d) and, ideally, the data should be collected and analyzed by an independent, financially disinterested researcher. The analysis should not be based on skewed data collection such as presuming that those who do not claim a "pass guarantee" refund must have passed their exams, or presuming that spontaneous contacts from customers are just as likely to arise from successful exam candidates as from unsuccessful exam candidates. To my knowledge, no company that claims a simple, single pass rate (such as "our pass rate is x%" has ever described its methodology for determining the "pass rate" nor has made their raw data available for scruitiny. I realize that comparisons on other variables might be of interest. As you recieve input from other companies which might address issues other than those listed here, please feel free to contact me so that I can describe BTA with regard to that issue....and please let me know if you have any follow up questions.

How do you go about writing sample questions? How do you keep tabs on the real exam as it changes over time?

BTA's sample questions are written based on the author's (a) doctoral level training in test instrument construction, (b) clinical experience, (c) conversations with scores of practicing clinical social workers annually, especially those who constitute the audiences of the author's in-service training workshops, and (d) literature review. We keep tabs on the real exam as it changes over time by (a) carefully reviewing the Candidate's Handbook (for California) and ASWB materials describing its license examinations and (b) conversations with recent exam candidates. Although we never seek the wording of specific exam questions we are interested in descriptions of topics covered on the exam, topics emphasized on the exam, level of difficulty, and question format.

Have you seen key differences between students who are prepared and not prepared for the exam? What do you think is the most important part of effective exam preparation?

Although all of our customers have prepared for the exams, we often meet exam candidates who have not prepared for the exam at our in-service training workshops. The major differences we've observed are that those who prepare for their license exams.... - are less influenced by the many misleading rumors that circulate about the exam - are more confident, and therefore more secure, in knowing what to anticipate on the exam - are more articulate in explaining their answers to exam questions, rather than primarily relying on intuition - are better able to manage the time pressure of the exam BY FAR, the most important part of EFFECTIVE exam preparation occurs when the exam candidate takes what they are reviewing for the exam and applies it to their clinical practice with actual clients. So many of BTA's customers tell us things like "Since I've been studying for the exam I find that my clinical practice is actually improving. I'm more articulate in my case documentation, my assessments are more thorough, I'm considering a wider range of diagnostic possibilities for my clients and better able to validate my diagnostic conclusions, and my treatment plans are more clinically meaningful....not just a way to meet administrative requirements." Customers who have this kind of experience always seem to do much better with their exams than those who find their exam studies to be "academic" and unrelated to actual practice. That's why we've found it so important for BTA's exam preparation materials to be written by an author with extensive clinical in-service training experience, not just academic experience.

Find Stan Taubman and BTA on the web at Berkeley Training Associates.

November 20, 2009
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