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Abstract: This study examines the use of a competency-based scoring rubric to measure students’ field practicum performance and competency development. Rubrics were used to complete mid-year and final evaluations for 56 MSW students in their foundation field practicum. Results indicate that students scored higher than expected on competency development measures, appearing to provide evidence of good overall program outcomes in terms of competency levels achieved by students. Results also appear to provide evidence of grade inflation by field instructors, however, calling into question whether students have actually gained adequate skills to engage in competent social work practice.


According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) (2008), field education is the signature pedagogy in social work education and, as such, “represents the central form of instruction and learning in which [… the] profession socializes its students to perform the role of practitioner” (p. 8). The role of the field practicum as a fundamental educational tool for professional practice is long-standing and widely accepted (Bogo, et al., 2004; Fortune, McCarthy, & Abramson, 2001; Sherer, & Peleg-Oren, 2005; Tapp, Macke, & McLendon, 2012). In fact, student performance in the field internship is often viewed as “the most critical checkpoint for entry to the profession” (Sowbel, 2011, p. 367). Yet, in spite of the centrality of field education to the preparation of social workers, little is known about how, what, and how well students learn professional skills through their field education experiences and how competent they are in performing as professionals at the completion of their field internships.

Within the field education arena, much attention has been given to best practices for managing field education programs and to developing, planning, facilitating, and evaluating field placements. Similarly, evaluation of student performance has received wide attention. While “evaluations of student performance in field are of unquestionable importance in social work education […and] serve as the primary means of assessing student competence in performing practice roles,” the difficulties of such evaluations have been well documented (Garcia & Floyd, 2002; Holden, Meenaghan, & Anastas, 2003; Raskin, 1994; Reid, Bailey-Dempsey, & Viggiani, 1996, p. 45; Sowbel, 2012, p. 35; Valentine, 2004). Evaluation of social work practice performance is complex and subjective, and it is often challenging to identify clear standards from which to assess performance (Widerman, 2003). Little evidence exists regarding the reliability and validity of field practicum evaluation methods “in discriminating the varying levels of social work competence in […] students” (Regehr, Bogo, Regehr, & Power, 2007, p. 327).

Prior authors have pointed out that the characteristics which make a student unsuitable for social work practice often first become evident in the field practicum (LaFrance, Gray, & Herbert, 2004; Moore, Dietz & Jenkins, 1998). “Given the reality that not all students will meet necessary professional standards,” one would expect that field education would be the place where students are likely to be screened out of the profession (LaFrance, et al., 2004, p. 326). Yet, prior literature indicates that it is rare for students to be evaluated as inadequate in field internships (Cole & Lewis, 1993; Fortune, 2003; Sowbel, 2011). In fact, many hold that field performance ratings are often inflated, as evidenced by the uniformly high ratings for the great majority of students (Bogo, Regehr, Hughes, Power, & Globerman, 2002; Raskin, 1994; Regehr, et al., 2007). Developing strategies to fairly and accurately evaluate field performance is key to demonstrating student competency development in social work education programs and to ensuring that graduates possess an adequate level of competency to engage in social work practice.

Competency Assessment

Current CSWE accreditation standards require the assessment of students in both the field practicum and the classroom to ensure student proficiency on core competencies. Competencies are operationalized through the identification and measurement of practice behaviors, and accredited social work programs are required to measure student outcomes in each competency area. CSWE’s ten core competencies, as well as an abbreviated title or category used in the current study to indicate each competency, are presented in Table 1.

A variety of methods have been used for assessing student performance in field education. Examples include measuring interpersonal and practice skills, using self-efficacy scales, examining student and/or client satisfaction scores, and completing competency-based evaluations (Tapp, et al., 2012). Tapp, et al. (2012) discuss the importance of distinguishing between assessing students’ practice (a client-focused concept) and assessing students’ learning (a student-focused concept). Tapp, et al. indicate that the demonstration of competencies and practice behaviors in field education is best related to a student-focused assessment of learning. Measurement of students’ actual performance via the use of competency-based tools is of particular relevance in social work due to CSWE’s focus on competency-based education.

There are two main types of competency-based measures: tools that measure theoretical knowledge within the competencies and tools that assess students’ abilities to perform competency-based behaviors, skills, and tasks (Tapp, et al., 2012). Knowledge, values, and skills are all components of competency. Field practicum, however, is most explicitly intended to address the performance of competency-based behaviors in practice. It is critical, therefore, that students’ performance-based competency be evaluated. Direct evaluation of discrete practice behaviors represents a way for social work programs to demonstrate the incorporation of competencies into the field practicum and to gather data on students’ mastery of those competencies.

Purpose and Research Questions

The purpose of the current study was to explore the use of a particular evaluation method for assessing student performance-based competency development in field practicum. The study was guided by a series of research questions: (a) Was the field evaluation tool and scoring rubric useful for measuring student performance-based competency in the ten competency areas? (b) Did student performance in the field practicum meet the outcome (benchmark) levels deemed acceptable by the Masters of Social Work (MSW) Program? (c) Did field evaluations differentiate between students’ performance levels from mid-year to final? (d) What student or program factors were related to student performance scores?

The research focused on the foundation (first) year field practicum in an MSW program. Examination of the foundation year was chosen because foundation practice behaviors are specifically delineated by CSWE and are, therefore, consistent across social work programs. Advanced-year practice behaviors, in contrast, are delineated by each individual social work program depending upon their own concentrations or specializations. Since advanced practice behaviors are unique to particular programs, analysis of student progress on the competencies could be impacted by the particular behaviors being measured rather than the measurement tool, and results would not be generalizable.

For the foundation-year, CSWE’s core competencies include 41 practice behaviors. It is assumed that the practice behaviors serve as indicators of the competency to which they are related (construct validity) and that adequate performance scores on the competency indicate the ability to perform as a competent practitioner (criterion-related validity). Assessment of construct and criterion-related validity was beyond the scope of the current study. Face validity of the evaluation tool was assured, however, with the use of CSWE-mandated competencies and practice behaviors as the items measured in the current study.

Agency field instructors were charged with completing student performance assessments. Field instructors were provided training on competency-based education, CSWE’s competencies and practice behaviors, and a scoring rubric used to rate students’ performance (see Figure 1). Students, field instructors, and assigned faculty liaisons collaborated at the beginning and throughout the placement to identify specific field assignments that included the practice behaviors. While the practice behaviors being measured were the same for all students, the method of teaching and learning (and the specific tasks students engaged in) varied for each student based on the individual learning plans and field assignments. Ongoing consultation was available to field instructors throughout the practicum via faculty liaisons and the MSW program field director.


All foundation-year MSW students (N = 56) were assigned to a field placement, and all students developed a field practicum learning plan specifying activities they would engage in to practice and master each of the competencies. Learning plans were developed in collaboration with field instructors and faculty liaisons. All students were informed of the competencies and practice behaviors and were advised of the field evaluation process.

Field evaluations of students’ performance were completed by field instructors half-way through the field placement (mid-year) and again at the end of the field placement (final). Each student was rated on performance of each of the practice behaviors using the evaluation tool and scoring rubrics. Possible scores on each item ranged from 1 (significantly below expectations) to 5 (significantly exceeds expectations), with the expected score for most students being a 3 (meets expectations). Descriptors (anchor language) for each numerical score differed from the mid-year evaluation rubric to the final evaluation rubric, representing an expectation that while students’ skill levels were expected to increase over the course of the placement, the numerical rating for most students would continue to be a 3 (meets expectations) for the final evaluation. The scoring rubrics had good evidence of internal reliability with a Cronbach alpha of .94 for mid-term scores and .95 for final scores. Figure 1 shows the complete scoring rubric.

All data from mid-year and final field evaluations were entered into SPSS to analyze results. Descriptive statistics were used to examine results on demographic characteristics and on individual practice behaviors. Practice behaviors related to particular competencies were subsequently combined to determine composite scores representing students’ proficiency level on each competency. Bivariate analyses were used to examine differences between groups based on demographic characteristics and to explore relationships between mid-year and final evaluation scores. During the course of this study, identifiable student and field instructor data were also collected. In this way, data collected served a dual purpose of contributing to efforts to gather student-specific outcome data as well as program-level assessment data. The student-specific data were used to inform program efforts to evaluate and address particular learning needs of individual students and to inform the program about the learning opportunities in particular placement agencies. Program-level aggregate data were used in the current study to explore the evaluation tool and scoring rubric being used and to answer the research questions guiding the study. Results reported in this study relate to program-level aggregate data.


In order to determine whether overall student performance in the foundation field practicum met the outcome expectations of the MSW Program, results were analyzed to examine scores on all individual practice behaviors and to determine overall competency scores. The intent was to determine how many students scored at or above the expected level of proficiency at mid-year and final evaluation points.

Field evaluations were received for 100% (n = 56) of foundation field students at mid-year, and for 93% (n = 52) at the final point. The overwhelming majority of students scored at or above the designated proficiency score (3 = meets expectations) on practice behaviors and competencies at both mid-year and at final evaluation points. At mid-year, 100% of students scored a 3 or better on 24 of the 41 practice behaviors. On the remaining 17 practice behaviors, over 90% of the students scored a 3 or better. The lowest scores on any items were on a single practice behavior related to Competency 8 (Policy Practice) and a single practice behavior related to Competency 9 (Context). On both of these items, 92.8% of students scored 3 or better. At the time of the final evaluation for foundation field practicum, 100% of students scored at or above the designated proficiency score of 3on 39 of the 41 practice behaviors. For the remaining two practice behaviors (both related to Competency 8 [Policy Practice]), 98.2% of students scored 3 or better.

Composite scores were calculated by combining all practice behaviors related to a particular competency to arrive at an overall score for each competency. Results indicated that the vast majority of students scored at or above the designated proficiency level on all competencies at mid-year. The percentage of students scoring proficient on individual competencies ranged from 94% to 100%. At the time of the final evaluations, 100% of students scored at or above the designated proficiency level on all of the competencies.

Students’ competency scores on the mid-year and final evaluations were compared to determine whether there were differences in scores at the two points. Results indicated that total scores on the final evaluation were higher on all ten of the competencies than at mid-year. Paired Samples t-tests were used to determine whether these differences rose to the level of statistical significance. Results indicated that mid-year and final scores were significantly different on all of the competencies. Overall competency scores at mid-year and final, along with the results of Paired Samples t-tests are presented in Table 2.

Importantly, while higher scores on the final evaluation seem intuitively logical, had most students received the expected score of 3 at both mid-year and final, overall competency scores would have been the same at mid-year and final. The expectation that students’ competency levels would increase during the course of the placement was built into the scoring rubric. For example, the descriptive language for a score of 3 (meets expectations) at mid-year was, “Understands the practice behavior and offers evidence of appropriate use. Predominantly functions with supervision and support.” The description for the same score on the final evaluation rubric stated, “Demonstrates proficiency and implements the practice behavior consistently. Begins to function autonomously and uses supervision for collaboration.” As the performance characteristics that were expected to equate to a score of 3 on the final evaluation were higher than those on the mid-year evaluation and field instructors were advised that the expected score for most students at both mid-year and final would be a 3, one would have expected no difference in mean competency scores between mid-year and final evaluation points. The evidence of statistically significant differences on all ten competencies, with final evaluations being higher in all areas, could indicate that the rubric was not valid and did not, in fact, differentiate levels of performance. Alternatively, results could indicate that field instructors chose to elevate scores at the time of the final evaluation in spite of the rubric. This explanation would support prior literature, in that it would be indicative of grade inflation.

Because of this unexplained result, additional descriptive analyses were conducted regarding the variation in scores of students rated 3 or better in each competency area (using composite competency scores converted to the 5 point Likert categories). The percent of students receiving a composite score of 3, 4, or 5 on each competency at mid-year and final are presented in Table 3.

Table 3 shows that approximately a third to a half of students received scores indicating they had exceeded or significantly exceeded expectations at the mid-year evaluation point, with most students receiving a score of 4 (exceeds expectations). By the final evaluation point, the vast majority of students were rated as exceeding or significantly exceeding expectations, with scores of significantly exceeding expectations (5) being given more frequently than scores of merely exceeding expectations (4). This appears to provide significant evidence of grade inflation and calls into question the actual degree of competency development among students. While it is likely safe to assume minimal proficiency, it is questionable whether many students actually demonstrate competency to the level that would be expected based merely on their final scores, and these findings call into question the validity of the scoring rubrics used.

A final question in this study was whether student or program factors that affected performance scores on the field evaluations could be identified. Specifically, the researcher was interested in whether student factors of gender or of part-time versus full-time program status or program factors of placement agency type or faculty liaison were related to the evaluation scores given to students. Bivariate analyses were used to determine whether there were any differences in student performance scores based on these factors.

In terms of student-specific factors, student performance scores were found to differ on three competencies at the time of the final evaluations based on gender. Specifically, on the Competency 5 (Social Justice) male students, with a mean score of 14.57, scored significantly higher at the time of their final evaluation than female students, with a mean score of 13.16. With a t = 2.775 and a corresponding p-value of .017, results of an Independent Samples t-test revealed this to be a significant difference. Similarly, on Competency 9 (Context) males (M = 9.43) scored higher than females (M = 8.27). An Independent Samples t-test (t = 2.039, p = .047) revealed this to be a significant difference. Finally, on the Intervention portion of Competency 10 (Practice), Independent Samples t-test results (t = 2.052, p = .045) revealed that males (M = 19.13) scored significantly higher than females (M = 17.27). Importantly, mean scores of all students were very high, evidencing proficiency on the competencies by both males and females. Additionally, the sample size of male students was very small.Only 14% (n=8) of the students in this study were male.

A second student-specific variable, that of enrollment in the part-time (3 year) or the full-time (2 year) MSW program, was also examined. Analysis of part-time versus full-time program status yielded no differences in scores on any of the competencies. All students were in their first year of social work field placement, and all scored similarly.

Students’ competency scores were also examined based on program-related factors, specifically faculty liaison and the type of agency where students were placed. In terms of liaison assignment, results of a One-way ANOVA (F = 2.754, p = .028, df = 5) revealed that students’ scores on Competency 2 (Ethics) differed based on faculty liaison assignment at the time of mid-year evaluations, but these differences had disappeared by the final evaluations. No differences in students’ performance scores were found on any of the other competency scores at either point.

Data were also examined to determine if there were differences in students’ scores based on type of agency. Specifically, agencies were categorized into groups based on the field of practice/population served. Categories included child welfare, mental health, aging, medical, school-based, private foster care, family and children, and other. No statistically significant differences on student performance were found on any of the competencies based on the type of agency in which students were placed. This would appear to indicate that students received learning opportunities for each competency area regardless of agency placement and might indicate that students were similarly prepared for their advanced year regardless of their foundation placement site.


Data obtained via this study provided evidence that program learning outcome benchmarks for the foundation field placement were met. All aggregate indicators exceeded the program requirements and therefore provided evidence of students’ adequate progress on competency development. Some question remains, however, as to whether students’ adequate progress on competency development is the same as students’ development of adequate competency. That is to say, while program expectations regarding students’ field evaluation minimum scores were met, most students actually received scores that were well above the minimum level, with over half receiving the highest possible rating in many of the competency areas at the final evaluation point. It is unclear whether these scores represent an accurate picture of students’ competency level, or whether field instructors’ scores were higher than student performance would actually merit.

There are several potential explanations for the unexpectedly high scores students received. First, of course, students may have actually been exceptional and, therefore, may have been accurately scored. Alternatively, perhaps the scoring rubrics used to rate student performance were not valid. Rubrics that included numerical scores and descriptor language for each performance level were provided to field instructors for scoring students at both mid-year and final evaluation points. If descriptor language had remained the same from the mid-year rubric to the final rubric, one would have expected to see an increase in students’ scores due to increased skill development. Different language for mid-year and final scoring rubrics was used in this study, however, with language on the final rubric representing more advanced performance. Therefore, it was expected that numerical scores would remain relatively unchanged and still be reflective of adequate competency development. This did not occur, however, and students actually received significantly higher numerical scores at the final evaluation point. This seems to indicate either that scoring rubric language was inaccurate, or that scores were raised in spite of the rubric language.

Rubrics are frequently used to guide the analysis of the products or processes of student performance and are often used in professional programs such as teacher education, psychology, public health, and medicine (Batalden, Leach, Swing, Dreyfus, & Dreyfus, 2002; Brookhart, 1999; Koo & Miner, 2010; Moskal, 2000, Leach, 2008; Thaler, Kazemi, & Huscher, 2009). Validity and reliability issues related to rubrics are, however, under-examined. The validity of scoring rubrics, specifically, is dependent in large part on the purpose of the assessment, the assessment instrument, and the evaluative criteria (Moskal & Leydens, 2000). Assessment criteria in this study were CSWE’s (2008) 41 foundation field practice behaviors designed to be measurable indicators of core competency development. It is possible that the practice behaviors were not well understood by field instructors and, therefore, did not represent clear criteria upon which they could assess performance. It is also possible that the descriptors of performance levels on the scoring rubric were inadequate. Most rubrics include evaluative criteria (to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable work), quality definitions (to describe how work is to be judged), and a scoring system (Popham, 1997). All of these items were included on the scoring rubrics used in this study; however, the rubrics were not pre-tested prior to the implementation. According to Widerman (2003), “Submitting rubrics to student and collegial review and involving multiple evaluators can heighten validity and reliability” (p. 122). While rubrics were “shared” with students and field instructors in the current study, they were not mutually developed.

Another potential explanation for the unexpectedly high ratings of students’ performance in this study is the intentional or unintentional inflation of scores by field instructors. While, according to Widerman (2003),“theoretically, at least, a high number of above-average grades should indicate effective teaching and widespread mastery of course objectives” (p. 121), rubrics that involve numerical scoring of performance can involve many issues such as appropriateness, fairness, bias, and comparison (Dalziel, 1998). Prior evidence of grade inflation by field instructors has been well documented (Bogo, et al., 2002; Raskin, 1994; Regehr, et al., 2007; Sowbel, 2012), although the reasons for this inflation are not well understood. Perhaps field instructors view students who have completed a year of field as “more desirable” or “more deserving” than ones at mid-year. At mid-year, a field instructor might be in the middle of working on challenging issues with a student, and if those issues have been overcome by the final evaluation point,field instructors might wish to acknowledge the improvements. Alternatively, perhaps the fact that the field practicum has ended and the field instructor gets a break might result in an intern being seen in a more favorable light.

Grade inflation could also be related to risk management. Field instructors may perceive the desirability of having all interns “pass” so as to avoid potentially problematic procedural or legal situations. In this scenario, a field instructor with two students, having given a somewhat marginal student a “passing” grade, might feel a need or responsibility to rate a good student even higher to reflect the differences in performance. Finally, grade inflation by field instructors might be the result of a social desirability bias. Field instructors likely wish to be viewed as competent employees, supervisors, and professionals. Many may wish to have students placed with them again. They are frequently chosen to be a field instructor precisely because of their interest and ability in being a successful mentor. Successful student interns support these desires and perceptions and may unintentionally impact the evaluation of students’ competency.

Some differences in students’ performance ratings were found based on gender. There is little information in the literature on gender differences in social work field practicum outcomes. Some evidence does exist that an interaction between supervisor’s and supervisee’s gender may result in variations in evaluation scores. Chung, Marshall, and Gordon (2001) found that male field supervisors scored male counseling trainees higher than female trainees in a study of race and gender bias in practicum supervision in a counseling education program. They did not find differences based on interns’ gender when supervisors were female, however. Field instructor gender was not investigated in this study, so whether supervisor/supervisee gender interactions might be related to higher scores for male students on some competencies is unknown. Future research in this area is suggested.

Interestingly, no differences in students’ performance ratings were found based on the type of agency they were placed in or who their faculty liaison was. This is a positive finding in that all agency types seemed to provide opportunities for skill practice in all of the competency areas. Similarly, one can conclude that program training and liaison communications gave students and field instructors across the program similar information regarding facilitating the field placements.


Ultimately, all social work education programs must take seriously the issue of field education. CSWE accreditation standards make it clear that measurement of students’ competency development must occur both in the classroom and in the field practicum. According to Widerman (2003), “Regardless of their effort, preparation, experience, personal characteristics, or skill, all students must achieve a pre-determined level of competency to move ahead or pass” (p. 121). It is important, however, to distinguish how and when students’ competency develops to inform educational efforts.

The current study highlights that while distinguishing and measuring levels of competency in the field practicum is important, it is also difficult and complex. Using scoring rubrics for field instructors to complete performance evaluations is one strategy. The use of rubrics provides a method that directly connects the evaluation method and criteria to that which is being assessed. Scoring rubrics provide students and supervisors with performance expectations, consistent guidelines, opportunities for self-evaluation, and a mechanism for individualized feedback (Widerman, 2003). Such tools can also provide aggregate data to inform social work programs about their field education programs as was done in this study. Nevertheless, rubrics can be “instructionally flawed” if they fail to capture what is actually being measured (Popham, 1997). In the case of this study, while the results tell us how students scored on competency development, they do not necessarily tell us about students’ actual competency. Continued research on competencies, competency-development, and competency-based evaluation are necessary in social work and should remain a focus of professional study. Continued review of the field evaluation scoring rubrics, as well as engaging field instructors in understanding, critiquing, and using the rubrics, is planned in the program under study in this research.

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