The ASWB Clinical Social Work Examination:
Competence, Context and Next Steps
A professional debate is taking place about the validity of the Association of Social Work Boards’ (ASWB) Clinical Examination as a gateway to giving clinical social workers the ability to practice independently and in settings that require clinical social work licensure. Data on the pass rates for this examination were released in August 2022. The ASWB Pass Rate Analysis showed that 45% of African American test takers passed the examinations while 85% of white test takers passed. Additionally, there was an approximate 20-percentage-point disparity in the pass rates for older test takers and for those whose primary language is not English (https://www.aswb.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/2022-ASWB-Exam-Pass-Rate-Analysis.pdf). As an organization, the Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) is concerned about members who face these disparities.
CSWA is particularly concerned about Black social workers and other marginalized groups being denied social work licensure, being denied access to jobs that require licensure, and the impact this has on their ability to support their families. To be sure, clinical social work is not the only profession which has disparities in examination pass rates; psychologists, LMFTs, physicians and many other professions show similar disparities (Nienow, Sogabe and Husain, 2023). CSWA is nonetheless determined to set a standard for clinical social work credentialing and licensing that is just and equitable.
The need for careful preparation of clinical social workers to practice as independent clinicians and in other settings is not in dispute. The main concerns have been about the ASWB clinical examination which those who desire to be independent clinical social workers must pass. How can we make this process more equitable?
CSWA has participated in a number of ASWB-sponsored events over the past year. ASWB CEO Dr. Stacey Hardy-Chandler presented to the CSWA State Affiliate Annual Summit in October 2022, followed by a meeting of CSWA leadership with Dr. Hardy-Chandler to continue this discussion. Many CSWA members also attended an ASWB meeting on the psychometrics of the exam and participated in the ASWB “Community Conversations,” a focus group for CSWA members where ideas for improving the disparities in the licensure process were considered. Finally, CSWA President Kendra Roberson, PhD, met with other social work leaders as part of a coalition of leaders organized by ASWB.
CSWA has also held monthly Town Halls (which started during the pandemic and have continued for almost three years) where we have listened to members about their concerns and ideas for improving the clinical examination. In these Town Halls, the pain of CSWA members who had struggled with the ASWB examination came through loud and clear. When the ASWB report was released in August 2022, the experiences of these members were sadly validated.
There are known racial inequities in academic institutions at every level (Nienow, et al., 2023) including graduate school programs. CSWA has examined the ASWB clinical examination pass data by schools. Some schools are doing a better job of correcting for these inequities and providing adequate support for their students to pass the exams. The ways that these graduate programs are improving pass rates should be explored and adopted by other programs. We believe that the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) could play a central role in helping schools address this issue.
CSWA strongly believes that clinical social workers preparing for the ASWB clinical exam need test prep materials, including courses, peer group involvement, and financial support. In addition to more support from graduate programs, CSWA would like to see ASWB provide more financial support and exam preparation.
CSWA encourages the social work community to continue to discuss the use of written exams as a means of determining competence. Can an examination adequately predict whether a clinician who passes will increase public protection? Can an examination signal that a clinician is better prepared to be a clinically astute clinical social worker? Answering these questions requires collaboration between educators, clinicians, and regulators, a process that fortunately began during recent meetings to develop the language for the Social Work Compact. That said, it is possible that a more neutral organization could also assist our community in making these larger decisions about testing.
In the absence of another pathway to licensing, CSWA has come to the conclusion that for now, we need an examination or some suitable secondary pathway to demonstrate clinical competency. The ASWB clinical examination fills this role. The 2022 ASWB report shows the need for significant changes to the examination to eliminate the disparities in pass rates for Black clinical social workers and the other groups that are currently unable to pass the examination at rates comparable to white clinical social workers.
Here are the steps CSWA is taking to address the elimination of these disparities. We aim to:
As the social work community grapples with best approaches to clinical social work competencies and examinations, CSWA’s intention is to collaborate with other social work organizations interested in improving each clinical social worker’s journey to licensure and enjoyment of their work life through increased access and skills. Clinical social workers need more support in their MSW programs, throughout the 3000 hours of supervised experience, and to prepare for the ASWB clinical examination and/or other ways of evaluating clinical competency.
Nienow, M., Sogabe, E, and Husain, A. (2023). Racial disparity in social work licensure exam pass rates. Research on Social Work Practice 33/1, 76 – 83.
Kendra Roberson, PhD, CSWA President
Laura Groshong, LICSW, CSWA Director, Policy and Practice
PO Box 105Granville, Ohio 43023