In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Assessment

  • Introduction
  • Early Works
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks

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Social Work Assessment
Karen Badger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0152


Although assessment generally yields a written product, it also is a process that employs a systematic method through which information is gathered, reviewed, and then applied in conjunction with theory to gain a better understanding of the subject of focus. Assessment is essential to social work practice no matter the social worker’s role, the nature of the interaction or practice setting, client population, or phase of the helping process. It is used to gather evidence to understand presenting problems, to evaluate progress and outcomes, and to assess the effectiveness of interventions and programs. Assessment is also an integral part of social work education and consists of appraisal of student learning and the effectiveness of curricula, pedagogy, and programs in preparing students for social work practice. Assessment in social work practice is threaded throughout all of its activities and employs a plethora of models and frameworks. Assessment is a core activity in social work practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, or communities. Initial assessments (also referred to as terms such as diagnostic, intake, or psychosocial assessments at an individual or family level) are utilized to gain a comprehensive understanding of a client’s circumstances, difficulties, and assets and to determine a subsequent course of action or intervention plan. The scope of this initial assessment may be narrow or broad, depending on factors such as the client system (individuals vs. communities), the role of the social worker, and the purpose of the assessment. Work with individuals traditionally includes a bio-psychosocial assessment—and more recently bio-psycho-sociocultural-spiritual assessment. Other types of assessments in social work practice with groups or communities are those that gather data related to need, risk, assets, strengths, and capacity-building. Although it is usually initiated at the point of engagement of the social worker, assessment should be thought of as a dynamic and occurring throughout the helping or change process to account for new developments and emerging considerations and conducted in partnership with the client. Assessment in social work is also employed to measure progress toward goal achievement and final outcomes, often referred to as practice evaluation. Both practice and social work education utilize formative and summative assessment approaches in order to appraise program or intervention impact as well as student learning. Formative and summative assessment may utilize similar data collection methods but are differentiated according to purpose and use of the data. Formative assessments are developmental and used to shape and enhance student learning, interventions, or new programs. Summative assessment focuses on the end product—or impact of a program or intervention and outcomes achieved. Ideally, both formative and summative methods of assessment are employed in practice and education. Both can involve feedback from clients, staff, etc., as well as use validated measures or assessment artifacts and can be used to shape intervention or education efforts.

Early Works

Assessment in social work has its roots in both the Charity Organization Society—the first organizational effort to structure social work (see History of Social Work in the United Kingdom)—and Jane Addams’s activities in 1910 and the Settlement House movement. Mary Ellen Richmond also made significant contributions to the development of assessment. She is considered to be the founder of social casework and is credited with laying the groundwork for systematic and evidence-driven assessment and diagnosis through her introduction of “social diagnosis”; see Richmond 1917. Gitterman and Germain 2008 (originally published in 1980) then articulated a theoretical model that brought together the clinical and social reform aspects of social work practice. Richmond 1922 later took into account the person and the environment and developed fundamentals of social work practice, including assessment. The author of Montalvo 1982 further detailed Richmond’s influence through his articulation of her contributions in a clinical family group treatment model he presented. Harriett Bartlett introduced the importance of the “interaction” between the person and the environment in assessment and social work, which is represented in the current Person-in-Environment construct (see Person-in-Environment). Bronfenbrenner 1986 illustrated the evolution of the ecological approach (see Ecological Frameworks) by delineating a conceptualization of ecosystem levels with application to assessment and intervention. Later, Pardeck 1988 built upon this work and that of others such as Richmond and Bartlett and formulated an ecosystems approach to assessment and intervention.

  • Addams, J. 1910. Twenty years at Hull House with autobiographical notes. New York: Macmillan.

    Addams’s participation in assessment prior to direct macro-level intervention is illustrated in chapters 6 and 7 (pp. 113–153). She discussed the American Settlement House movement’s philosophy for pursuing new initiatives, including engaging in fact-finding prior to action. Her own work illustrates efforts to ascertain data prior to action.

  • Bronfenbrenner, U. 1986. Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology 22.6: 723–742.

    DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.22.6.723

    This work draws from research and previous work in the area. Presented is an ecological framework that includes the use of micro, meso, exo, and macro systems levels to understand the individual or family within the context of the environment and its components.

  • Gitterman, A., and C. B. Germain. 2008. The life model of social work practice: Advances in theory and practice. 3d ed. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Originally published in 1980, this classic text follows Richmond’s Social Diagnosis (Richmond 1917) and articulates a theoretical model that connects the intervention and social reform emphases in social work.

  • Montalvo, F. F. 1982. The third dimension in social casework: Mary E. Richmond’s contribution to family treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal 10.2: 103–112.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00757617

    The influence of Mary Richmond’s theoretical and conceptual contributions and the implications of her work in the development of “family group treatment” and assessment are traced historically in a discussion of the evolution of this clinical treatment approach.

  • Pardeck, J. T. 1988. Social treatment through an ecological approach. Clinical Social Work Journal 16.1: 92–103.

    This author presented an application of the ecological perspective in social work practice that built upon the emphasis Mary Richmond placed on the importance of the interaction between person and environment. Outlined is an approach to assessment and intervention that is ecosystem oriented.

  • Richmond, M. E. 1917. Social diagnosis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    This is a classic work that introduced a systematic method of assessment—or social diagnosis—to understand a client’s problem. It is the first text to comprehensively present social work as a scientific profession and articulate theory and the practical application of methods to the collection of “social evidence.”

  • Richmond, M. E. 1922. What is social casework? An introductory description. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    This early text introduces a new methodology related to social work assessment and intervention: learning from cases. Richmond also made an appeal to include factors related to psychological well-being in assessment and data collection efforts.

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