This week, legislators in Maryland introduced a pair of bills (SB0871, SB0872) to let clinical social workers get licensed without first taking the ASWB Clinical Exam. Other jurisdictions are likely to follow. The current social work exams, like all clinical exams in mental health care, simply don’t work. Worse, they fail in remarkably biased ways. Professionals, the policymakers, and the public are all catching on to the sham.
When my colleague Tony Rousmaniere and I dug into the science surrounding clinical exams last summer, I initially figured we would write up a fairly dry, scholarly review. We came away concluding what the research makes obvious. Clinical exams for mental health licensure are tools of institutional racism, and they must be done away with.
White first-time examinees on the ASWB Clinical Exam pass more than 80% of the time. Black first-time examinees have less than a 45% pass rate. ASWB’s processes for identifying bias on their own exams are abysmal failures, as should be obvious from those numbers. What is less obvious is that those processes were doomed to fail from the beginning. Their structure ensures that they’ll miss bias even where it is happening.
After denying for years that they even had the data, last summer ASWB released a report acknowledging the racial and age-based disparities in exam outcomes. Since then, ASWB’s staff leaders have been presenting to licensing boards around the country — ASWB’s own member boards, mind you — in a desperate effort to preserve the status quo. The exam fees paid by social workers to take board-mandated exams are ASWB’s main source of funding.
ASWB’s gaslighting defense
ASWB has insisted that their internal systems are strong. They say more research is needed. And they consistently point to “upstream factors” as the reason for the disparities in outcomes on their exams, despite evidence to the contrary. They’ve refused to answer good and necessary questions. In some states, their defense of the status quo has gone well. In others, it has not.
Major social work organizations are aligning with social workers and against ASWB exams
Social workers and their organizations are now aligning against ASWB exams:
- The National Association of Social Workers opposes the continued use of ASWB exams at all levels. Several state chapters have made similar announcements.
- The Council on Social Work Education (which accredits graduate programs in social work) has called for state boards to pause their use of ASWB exams. CSWE also has removed exam pass rates as a measure of program quality.
- More than 10,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org to end ASWB exams.
The ASWB Clinical Exam is not the only problematic clinical exam in mental health care. The EPPP in Psychology and the California and National MFT Exams all show similar patterns. As social workers rise up against the ASWB Clinical Exam, their work may serve as a model for other professions to follow. This is only the beginning of a correction that is long overdue.