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Standardized exams keep Black social workers out, activists say. These Marylanders want to change that.



When Emanuel Wilkerson sat for the exam to become a licensed master social worker, he had nine job offers lined up. All he had to do was pass.

Starting in May, Wilkerson, 24, took the exam three times in four months. He spent his summer studying. He sank at least $1,300 into test preparation and fees. He failed each time ? by 10 points, by six points, and then by a single point.

“This exam leaves you essentially, financially, like broke,” Wilkerson said. “It basically leaves you traumatized from even trying again, and it makes you want to basically leave the field altogether.”

Wilkerson, who is Black, was a standout during his undergraduate career and the first in his family to earn an undergraduate degree.

Emanuel Wilkerson has failed the social work licensing exam three times. Recently released data from the Association of Social Work Boards shows that Black and Latino aspiring social workers in several states, including Maryland, fail licensing exams at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
Emanuel Wilkerson has failed the social work licensing exam three times. Recently released data from the Association of Social Work Boards shows that Black and Latino aspiring social workers in several states, including Maryland, fail licensing exams at much higher rates than their white counterparts.

He’s not alone in his struggle. Data released last year by the Association of Social Work Boards, which administers the social work licensing exams that the state of Maryland requires, showed disparities along racial lines that some in the profession say demonstrate the tests’ bias against nonwhite graduates.

In response, Democratic state Sen. Mary Washington of Baltimore introduced legislation Feb. 6 to address the issue.

“We are in a crisis. We need social workers,” Washington said. “There is a national movement to address these disparities and Maryland has an opportunity to be the leader.”

One bill would authorize the State Board of Social Work Examiners to issue temporary licenses to practice social work to applicants who have met all licensure requirements except passing an exam. The second bill would establish a work group under the Maryland Department of Health to identify alternatives to the current tests and develop recommendations on replacing the exam requirement.

The Association of Social Work Boards warned in a statement against eliminating its exams, saying that could have “many real-world consequences that could negatively affect the profession.”

The state of Maryland issues four types of licenses and each requires passing at least one exam. For instance, the requirements to reach the top license — licensed certified social worker-clinical — include a master’s degree, 3,000 hours of supervised social work and two exams. On this path, a “master’s exam” must be passed to get a master social worker license and begin the roughly two years of supervised work. A “clinical exam” is taken after that period to obtain a license to practice without supervision.

The four-hour exams have 170 questions each, many of which ask candidates to identify what they would do in a given situation.

In August, the association released for the first time national passing rate data broken down by race for its master’s and clinical exams for the years 2018 through 2021; state-by-state data was released for the years 2011 through 2021. The data showed white test takers pass the exams at a much higher rate than their nonwhite counterparts.

From 2018 to 2021, white test takers passed the master’s exam on the first try at an average rate of 86%. Those identifying as multiracial passed at a rate of 80%, followed by Asian test takers at 71%, Native American and Indigenous test takers at 64%, Hispanic and Latino test takers at 63% and Black test takers at 45%, according to the association.

The disparity persists for eventual passing rates, with a rate of 91% for white test takers and 52% for Black test takers.

Between 2011 and 2021 in Maryland, the first-time pass rates for white and Black test takers, which were the two largest groups to sit for the exam, were 93% and 56%, respectively. The third-largest group, Hispanic and Latino test takers, had a passing rate of 79%.

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Wilkerson said some of the tests’ scenarios show “cultural blindness.” For example, a question might ask what it means if a client constantly touches his hair. Wilkerson said he knows the answer could be that the child is not being washed or is otherwise neglected. But he said that ignores the fact that Black boys tend to touch and curl their hair.

A group called Social Workers for Equity and Anti-Racism says the association’s data demonstrates the “unfair” exams “affirmatively cause harm” by keeping Black, Latino and Indigenous test takers from becoming social workers. The organization also argues the exams do not reflect good social work in practice or what is taught in schools.

It called in an open letter for the state of Maryland to stop requiring the bachelor’s and master’s exams and instead issue licenses upon completion of a degree, allowing new graduates to immediately begin supervised practice.

Other states, such as California, Illinois and Rhode Island, do not require the association’s exams. Different states offer exemptions or alternatives.

In 2021, Illinois eliminated the master’s exam. Students graduating with a master’s degree in social work still apply to the state for a license, but taking the national exam is no longer part of the process for a license to begin working under supervision.

Kyle Hillman, the director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Social Workers Illinois chapter, said in the first six months of 2021, 241 social workers were licensed in Illinois. After Illinois eliminated its master’s exam, that number jumped in the first six months of 2022 to nearly 3,000 new social workers. Hillman said many of those individuals were already working in social work-adjacent roles, and are now overseen by the state.

“To see 2,600 people get licensed, that’s a huge success for this state,” Hillman said. “But it’s also a huge indictment of how bad this test is and how it’s hurting this profession and the folks who need services.”

Hillman said his association acted after feedback from members that the tests showed bias. But at the time, there was no concrete data available, so the clinical exam remains in place. Now, Hillman and his chapter intend to advocate for an alternative to testing for the license to practice without supervision.

“I hope every state does it,” he said.

Before Washington introduced her legislation in Maryland, the Maryland Board of Social Work Examiners invited the Association of Social Work Boards to its Jan. 13 meeting to address questions about the exams.

Association CEO Stacey Hardy-Chandler told the board in a virtual presentation that racism in America as a whole and disproportionate opportunities for people of color are to blame for disparate exam results, rather than the tests themselves.

“We know that there have been a lot of conversations about the licensing exam, a lot about us, in spaces without us,” Hardy-Chandler said. “In a country with a long and profound history of racism, systemic racism, and especially anti-Blackism, people are not coming to the exam process with the same opportunities for preparation.”

The board publicized the meeting with an offer to accept questions that members of the public submitted in advance. Hardy-Chandler said she tried her best to incorporate answers into her presentation.

In an emailed statement afterward, the board called the exam a “defensible measure of competency.”

“Requests that we, as a regulatory board, choose not to rely on the ASWB licensing examinations do not address the larger societal issues that can impact candidates long before they take a social work licensing exam,” the statement read. “Prerequisites to licensure are set in law, serve an essential component of public protection, and cannot simply be ignored nor waived.”

Philicia Ross, 33, is a licensed master social worker waiting to take her clinical exam. She said the Association of Social Work Board presented all Black and brown people to the board as a monolith that lacked access to certain opportunities.

Ross failed her master’s exam the first time she took it by two points.

“When you sit down for the actual exam, the test questions do not reflect what me as a Black, fat, queer woman would ever do if I was across from somebody who looked like me,” Ross said. “So now, there’s an added level of anxiety because I’m not answering as myself.”

Will Doyle is the director of housing operations for Pathways to Housing D.C. and is licensed in the District of Columbia as an independent clinical social worker.

Doyle, 44, is white and said that since the exam “is very much from a white lens,” he was well prepared to take it.

“For my upbringing and my family experience, calling the police, calling CPS [Child Protective Services] as the first thing is very much embedded in white culture,” Doyle said. “It’s very easy for me to respond that way out of just who I am.”

Jessica Strauss, a licensed psychotherapist and member of Social Workers for Equity and Anti-Racism, said no one is advocating for eliminating evaluation of candidates for licenses.

“But we’re saying we need a human-centered form of evaluation for a practice that is so human-centered,” she said.

Some have suggested changing the exams rather than abolishing them. At a Feb. 9 meeting of the Legislative Black Caucus, certified clinical social worker Brittany Barber-Alexander presented that view while maintaining the association should be held accountable. She said she failed her master’s exam three times and the clinical exam twice.

“I don’t think we should dismantle the exam. It needs to be changed,” Barber-Alexander said. “I once applied to be a test writer and I know several other people in my community have and been denied to do so. So you still have the same people writing those test questions that are antiquated and have nothing to do with what we do in this field.”

Emanuel Wilkerson is pictured in November.
Emanuel Wilkerson is pictured in November.

Advocates say ditching the exams would allow more social workers of color into a field that desperately needs them. For example, Wilkerson said he can’t find a Black therapist for himself. Ross has noticed the same gaps.

“It affects the public because we are in a mental health crisis,” Ross said. “You aren’t passing enough of us in the community to tell you what the community needs.”

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