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Licensure and Certificates: Addressing Social Work’s Licensure Exam Pass Rate
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 3 P. 6

What’s behind the disparities in the pass rate of the Association of Social Work Boards licensure examinations?

Over the past several years, the disparities that exist in the United States and throughout the world increasingly have been highlighted by stories shared on social media and in the news. These incidents run the gamut from anecdotal yet harmful to unspeakably tragic. As awareness for the inequity and injustice that persist rises, individuals, organizations, and professions are taking notice, looking for ways to identify and address the disparities within.

Social work, unsurprisingly, is one such profession. Social workers recognize that even while being a profession of individuals who believe in and fight for social change and equity, disparity still exists at all levels. Thus, many organizations have seen events, such as the death of George Floyd, as a call for analysis, assessment, and action—organizations including the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

“Organizations were looking inward after the murder of George Floyd,” says Stacey Hardy-Chandler, PhD, JD, LCSW, CEO of the ASWB, “and examining what they were doing.” She explains that the ASWB Board of Directors voted unanimously in November 2021 to analyze pass rate data for the social work licensure exams. “They felt like this was a part of what we could do toward justice. We needed to look at the information in order to be accountable for it.”

Hardy-Chandler says she was not surprised by the results of the analysis, though she would have liked to see a different outcome. “I had hoped that social work would find some bubble against all this, but of course, [the profession is] part of the larger society too.”

Pass Rate Analysis
The analysis conducted by the ASWB looked at test-taker performance over the span of 10 years—from 2011 to 2021—and included all five of the ASWB’s exams, which are clinical, masters, bachelors, associate, and advanced generalist. There was a specific focus on the years 2018–2021 as the exams’ blueprints were changed slightly beginning in 2018. Additionally, the analysis looked at both first-time pass rates and eventual pass rates, with more emphasis on the first time. The ASWB stated that such a focus allowed for cleaner data.

The results of the analysis were presented individually for each ASWB exam. However, when looked at collectively, there were clear trends across all five exams’ pass rates. People who are white, female identifying, and young are significantly more likely to pass an ASWB exam on their first try than are people of color, males, and those older than 30.

For example, in the clinical exam, white test-takers passed 83.9% of the time on their first attempt between 2018 and 2021. Comparatively, Black test-takers had a pass rate of just 45%. The pass rate for Hispanic/Latina test-takers was 65.1% and 72% for first-attempt test-takers who are Asian.

The pass rates were not as dramatically different across genders, with 75.3% of women and 72.8% of men passing on their first attempt of the clinical exam. In terms of age, those between 18 and 29 had the highest pass rate (80.1%), and those older than 50 had the lowest (62.8%).

As aforementioned, the findings for the remaining four tests were similar in trend.

ASWB Response
Within its analysis, the ASWB concluded that the disparities identified in pass rates are indicative of the larger systemic and societal disparities that exist, stating in its published report, titled 2022 ASWB Pass Rate Analysis, “The licensure process is subject to the many systemic factors affecting individuals, particularly those from historically marginalized communities. These systemic factors, combined with implicit factors, such as stereotype threat, can affect test-takers at any point along their personal and professional trajectory and culminate in passing or failing a licensing exam.”

The report further stated that investigating these factors must be a part of addressing the disparities within the pass rate.

Hardy-Chandler elaborated on this conclusion, noting first that many are attempting to discuss and address the data of the analysis without looking at the larger picture. “I think it’s really simplistic to point to the test as the cure for all of this. It’s a much more complex problem of which regulation is a part,” she says.

She describes the test as a tool—a tool that can highlight a problem, but that is not the problem itself. Hardy-Chandler draws a parallel to rates of blood pressure in specific populations by way of example. “Indigenous populations and Black people have extraordinary rates of high blood pressure. We know that because they get their blood pressure taken. No one is going after the blood pressure cuff. By parallel, this exam is showing us that there are differences in the experiences we have [before the exam].

Hardy-Chandler and the ASWB as a whole advocate for an upstream approach. They believe that by working with other organizations and systems within the social work profession, such as social work educators, they can begin affecting change that will lessen the disparities in the pass rate.

Hardy-Chandler would like to see curriculum about regulation embedded within social work schools, for example. “We will never tell education what they should and should not do. That’s not our role,” she clarifies. “We’re trying to be better at educating them about regulation. What I’m learning specifically is there are myths about regulation, assumptions about regulation. Telling our story better and educating educators about us better will benefit.”

As a part of its response to the pass rate analysis, the ASWB has launched a number of initiatives, including a webinar series aimed at expanding social workers’ understanding of licensing exams, a body of free resources for educators, and test-taking support from a third party. ASWB has been facilitating conversations with social workers about their test-taking experiences through a series of third-party-led community conversations as well.

On May 10, the ASWB also announced that the task force overseeing updates to the exams (changes will go into effect in 2026) had doubled in size in an effort to include more diverse perspectives.

However, through it all, the ASWB has made only minor enhancements to the exam and exam experience, such as the inclusion of three-option multiple choice questions rather than four and access to snacks (brought by the test taker) in the waiting area during the exam. These enhancements went into effect on January 1, 2023.

Additional Response
Senator Mary Washington (D), PhD, a state senator representing District 43 (Baltimore City and Baltimore County) in Maryland, describes that type of broad approach and response from the ASWB as a privilege.

She, as many others do, believes that the licensing exams need to be suspended while steps are taken to better understand the causes of the disparities.

“Whenever we see that a practice does harm, and you have not only the anecdotes and experiences of individuals [but also] the entity itself recognizing its harm, I think an appropriate response is to pause its use and evaluate it and determine the source of that,” she says.

Washington led a coalition that recommended the moratorium of social work licensing exams in the state of Maryland. The proposed bills would allow social workers to receive temporary licenses from the state board without taking and passing an exam. During the moratorium, a working group of all stakeholders would meet to determine the factors affecting the exam and next steps to be taken by social workers and the State Board of Social Work Examiners in Maryland.

The creation of the workgroup, through Senate Bill 0871, was approved by both houses, as well as the governor of Maryland. However, Senate Bill 0872, which authorized the temporary licensure, has not progressed.

Washington is not alone in calling for the suspension of the licensing exams. In October 2022, for example, NASW Illinois partially published a letter from the Council on Social Work Education on Twitter that urged the suspension of ASWB exams. The NASW national branch published its opposition to this approach in February 2023.

Ultimate Goal
Whether the suspension of the licensing exams should be included in ASWB’s active response to the analysis is yet to be determined and may not ever be known if a suspension is never authorized by a state or state board. What is known is that changes need to be made. Without them, the disparities will persist, and confidence in the profession of social work will waver. Both Washington and Hardy-Chandler agree on that.

They want to see a body of professionals who are ready, able, and qualified to serve their communities.

“I’m hoping that social workers more fully represent those who need support,” says Washington when reflecting on what can occur when disparities are addressed fully. “I’m hoping that we can be a model about how to address racial bias or disparities in a thoughtful, rigorous, and bold way—that we have the courage to address racism or sexism or in this case ageism. It takes courage to change. That’s what I’m hoping.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a social worker and freelance writer in the Philadelphia suburbs.