Following the release of a horrifying report from the Association of Social Work Boards acknowledging significant racial disparities in license exam performance, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has written to social work boards across the country urging them to pause the use of ASWB social work licensing exams.
The CSWE letter, which was partially published by the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, includes four requests of US social work boards:
- Suspend use of ASWB social work licensing exams until recommendations can be made, based on evidence, to fix the inequities highlighted in the ASWB report.
- Grant all graduates of accredited social work programs appropriate licensure or pre-licensure status, without requiring an ASWB exam. In other words, use the degree as proof of adequate training. Notably, the CSWE letter here makes a hedged exception for the ASWB Clinical Exam, acknowledging the need for a “post-graduate process” to ensure competency at a clinical licensure level, while suggesting “further analysis of the [ASWB] descriptive data […] to identify possible issues.”
- Consider following the lead of the Illinois social work board, which removed the ASWB exam as a requirement for social work licensure earlier this year.
- “Consider decoupling the Interstate Compact, currently in development, from the ASWB licensure exam.”
If adopted, these would be major changes in the licensing process for social workers across the country. Currently, all states license Clinical Social Workers at the master’s degree level, while many but not all license Social Workers at the bachelor’s degree level. Social work licensing exams are a requirement for licensure as a social worker, alongside a qualifying degree and, for Clinical Social Workers, supervised experience.
A problem across mental health professions
The weaknesses in license exams are well-known — and are particularly salient when considering clinical exams for licensure. (Clinical exams focus on client care but do not actually resemble that care in any meaningful way. They can be distinguished from law and ethics exams, also known as jurisprudence exams, which focus on legal and ethical compliance and, in some cases, crisis intervention.) Clinical exams, across mental health professions, have never demonstrated their value. They do not appear to correlate in any meaningful way with the thing that they are supposed to measure: Safety for independent practice.
Exam developers have gradually backtracked even on the basic purpose of license exams, today suggesting that they are only one part of a multi-part process to establish that a person has an appropriate knowledge base in their field. This muddying of the waters only serves to limit exams’ accountability.
The controversy over the EPPP-2 in Psychology has only highlighted how clinical exams have become cash cows for the organizations that develop them, while limiting the racial diversity of the mental health professions. Both of those might be tolerable if the exams actually correlated with anything having to do with public safety. But they have never demonstrated such a correlation. They’re all cost, and no benefit. CSWE is well-justified in suggesting they be suspended or done away with entirely.