A new licensure test is on the horizon. What is it and why is it necessary?
The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) announced in March that its board of directors had approved a plan to develop an additional licensure exam that would complement the existing test. The new exam, called the EPPP (Examination of Professional Practice in Psychology) Step 2, would focus on assessing skills, while the existing EPPP would continue to test knowledge.
The announcement about the EPPP-2, which may become a requirement as early as January 2019, is evoking mixed responses in the psychology community.
"I can definitely support the idea that there is a need to test skills because there are inconsistencies in training, but I'm worried that it will be expensive and yet another hoop that students are going to have to deal with," says Christine Jehu, PhD, chair of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS).
For others, the announcement was primarily welcome and perhaps long overdue news. "The competency movement has been going on for 30 years in psychology, and this new test is very consistent with a number of initiatives APA has been involved with," says Catherine Grus, PhD, deputy director of APA's Education Directorate.
In 2004, for example, APA formed a task force that studied then-current practices in competency assessment within psychology and other health professions. Two years later, the group released a report recommending that psychology develop a mechanism to test knowledge, skills and attitudes. The EPPP tests knowledge, but not skills and attitudes, Grus says.
"There are hundreds of different psychology training programs and practicum and internship sites, all with different supervisors and no common standard," says ASPPB CEO Stephen DeMers, EdD. "We have to find a way to keep the process of education credible and the profession relevant."
While APA accreditation holds schools to a certain standard of education, relatively few states have licensing laws that require psychologists to graduate from an accredited school. Even if all states required graduation from an accredited program, the field still needs to develop a method of screening candidates for licensure, DeMers says. "Accreditation evaluates an entire program, but licensure depends on competency of an individual," he says.
A test of skills is also in line with competency testing models used for other medical professionals such as MDs, says Eddy Ameen, PhD, director of APA's Office on Early Career Psychologists. "Proper competency assessment is an important part of what it means to be a psychologist. It ensures that all who treat the public have a minimum universal skill set."
DeMers hopes that the EPPP Step 2 ultimately will help psychologists increase their clout when lobbying third-party payers for reimbursement coverage and government agencies for federal programs. "I think we lose opportunities in these areas when we are not demonstrating a maintenance of competence," he says. "For that reason, I think this change is exciting and also necessary."
The path to a new test
The ASPPB initially explored the idea of developing a skill-based exam in the 1990s when it investigated an approach called latent image testing that was touted as a method of evaluating an applicant's decision-making process during a practice scenario. It was a paper-and-pencil version of today's electronic adaptive testing, which tracks the number of correct responses and how efficiently people move through a test. ASPPB abandoned the idea because it was cumbersome and did not seem to adequately assess the complex decision-making involved in psychology treatment scenarios, DeMers says.
ASPPB revisited the concept of competency testing about eight years ago, and in 2010, appointed a task force to review the literature on the topic. The group started gathering information from other professions (such as medicine, nursing and pharmacy) that were already involved in skill-based assessments and surveyed licensed psychologists to determine the criteria for the skills testing.
The task force suggested that ASPPB move forward with developing a skill-based test that would assess competency in the following areas: scientific orientation, professional practice, relational competence, professionalism, ethical practice and systems thinking.
Who, when and how much?
While there may be advantages to updating the licensing process, ASPPB recognizes another expensive test may seem daunting to new graduates. Many new graduates already carry considerable debt and are paying multiple fees for state boards where they are applying to practice, Jehu says.
ASPPB's goal is to keep the cost of Step 2 comparable to the EPPP, which is about $700, DeMers says. This will be challenging because the new test will likely use more expensive technology than Step 1, such as computer-based simulation, taped scenarios and possibly avatars.
"There will be a lot of upfront costs, but this has to happen and it's our job to make it as low-cost as possible," DeMers says.
In addition to cost concerns, some early career psychologists question whether it is wise to wait until the conclusion of training to weed out potentially incompetent psychologists. "If the goal is to be consistent with other degree programs, then why would we wait until so much later than medical programs, which test individuals throughout their training program as a uniform national standard?" says Samantha Rafie, PhD, an early career psychologist at Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center in California.
DeMers says that once the EPPP-2 is available, it may be possible to begin offering Step 1 before internship. This would mean the first test could be given immediately following coursework when knowledge is easier to recall. This could potentially reduce the need for people to spend money on expensive test preparation materials, he says.
"Moving the first test earlier could also allow students to use loan money to help cover the cost of the test," Jehu says. "There would also be more peer support when studying for the test if students are still at school."
Another question within the psychology community is who will be required to take the test. Rafie is already licensed, and she is concerned that she would have to take EPPP-2 if she wanted to move outside of California to practice. ASPPB will recommend that its member jurisdictions not require Step 2 for previously licensed psychologists with no record of complaints or discipline, DeMers says. For those who will be seeking a license after Step 2 is required, ASPPB will recommend to its member groups that psychologists only take it once to work in any state or Canadian province.
Before ASPPB will be ready to start offering the test, the organization needs to develop a blueprint for the exam, train psychologists to write the questions and conduct beta testing. They welcome help from psychologists who are interested in writing questions for the test or beta testing it. People interested in helping can email ASPPB Chief Operating Officer Carol Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although the Step 2 is a costly and time-consuming endeavor for both ASPPB and graduates of the future, Grus is optimistic that advantages of updating the testing process will be felt throughout the psychology community.
"ASPPB has to be responsive to a society that trusts psychology to be a profession that is populated by individuals who are well trained," Grus says. "I think Step 2 will establish that psychologists are holding themselves accountable and we value our profession."
By Heather Stringer
This article was originally published in the July/August 2016 Monitor on Psychology