Social work

A social work license exam that people of color fail more often is under scrutiny in Kansas

TOPEKA, Kansas— The test to become a licensed social worker is tough. It takes years of schooling, test preparation — and depending on the review — hundreds of hours of fieldwork.

April Diaz, fourth-year doctoral student. candidate at the University of Kansas, took the test in September and remembers some questions tripping her up, but not because she was unprepared.

“There are questions that I thought that if I could sit down with the person who wrote the questions, I could explain to them why I was right and why they were wrong,” she said.

Diaz is no slouch, winning national college scholarships and passing the test by a comfortable margin.

She is not alone in her criticism. The Association of Social Work Boards exam is facing calls from across the country to suspend the only test that all social workers in the United States take to obtain a license. This has been called racist and a barrier to hiring people in social work who are more like many of their clients.

Older applicants and Kansans of color fail the test more often than white applicants. In Kansas, the test comes in three different forms for bachelor’s, master’s, and clinical certification. In most cases, white candidates passed 20% more often on their first attempt than people of color or older Kansans.

Success rate at license level from 2011 to 2021:

White – 78.5%

Black – 55.3%

Hispanic/Latino – 46.7%

50 and over – 59.6%

Non-English speakers – 30.9%

Success rate at master’s level from 2011 to 2021:

White – 88.9%

Black – 59.1%

Hispanic/Latino 70.4%

50 and over – 77.7%

Non-English speakers – 55.2%

First time clinical success rate from 2011 to 2021:

White – 88%

Black – 56.1%

Hispanic/Latino – 75.6%

50 and over – 72.6%

Non-English speakers – 47.1%

The test can leave even people who have studied, trained and watched pros in the field in action intimidated.

“For people trying to pass the exam, I would just tell them not to think about the assumptions,” Diaz said. “It’s okay – just have your slightly problematic assumptions about people to pass the test.”

Candidates are not allowed to share exam questions. This would give other people an unfair advantage. But Diaz said some questions might ask what a social worker should do first. In reality, the answers were all things that should be done anyway, which makes the correct answer debatable.

The questions are multiple-choice, but she says some are better suited to short answers.

Why the disparities?

The Kansas News Service spoke with several social work students, teachers, national and local advocacy groups. They were all intrigued by the disparities. While they agreed it produced problematic results – a better test would show little correlation between race, for example, and test scores – but even the critics struggled to identify what would make them racist.

Humans are unique, so cultural education could change how each person might answer a question. Students of color generally score lower on standardized tests, so these problems could manifest here. About 47% of students say their university didn’t even tell them about the licensing exam, so maybe their university didn’t prepare them properly.

Kortney Carr, a doctoral student and associate professor of practice at the University of Kansas, has her own theory. She saw, anecdotally, that Black was slow to pass the test, choosing to start working on the pitch first.

Lessons learned on the job do not match test answers.

“It doesn’t look like the textbook,” she said. “They developed their practical skill set. …And then they take the test, the test is very embedded in the textbook and in the way we teach. It’s just different then.

Testing can be expensive, which could get some into the job market first. For the clinical examination, a person can take the test only after two years of supervision. That means paying a social worker thousands of dollars to shadow them until they’re eligible for testing, Carr said, adding another hurdle to getting licensed. The longer it takes to save money to take the test, the further away these people are from the classroom work that would prepare them.

But these are just theories and the real solution, or solutions, are still unknown. That’s why Darla Coffey, president and CEO of the Council on Social Work Education, wants every state to stop using the test until they learn more.

Hundreds of colleges and universities have social work students, but not all universities face the same issues.

At the University of Texas-Austin, for example, the pass rates for Hispanic/Latino and white students on the master’s exam are both over 94%. At Indiana University, multiracial students pass the master’s exam more often than their white counterparts. The two schools have disparities in other areas, however.

Coffey said she doesn’t want students to continue failing a problematic exam until the issues are resolved. She wants states to look at the data and look at schools without disparities in pass rates, to start finding solutions.

“We are not opposed to licensure,” she said, which can better assure competent social workers.

“We need to figure out exactly what’s going on before we can move forward,” she said. “It’s very problematic to say, ‘Well, there’s just something wrong with the takers here. You know, they should just pass the test. No, there is something wrong with the test.

Find a solution

Stacey Hardy-Chandler, president of the Association of Social Work Boards, said the group sought to eliminate anything that was discriminatory.

The group offers programs to better prepare teachers, publishes a free guide that includes sample questions, and works to get community feedback on suggested changes. This includes the launch of the Social Work Census, which will survey hundreds of thousands of social workers to see what they are doing to gauge how well exams reflect this.

Hardy-Chandler said the exam questions are now carefully scrutinized.

The questions are not written by the ASWB. Article writers do. These authors then propose questions which are then examined by a separate team. If it is rejected, the question is prepared in the workshop for possible later use. If this question is approved, it will be entered into the test as an unscored question.

Each test has 20 unscored questions. Candidates will answer these questions, and once enough data has been collected, the ASWB will see if this unscored question is biased. For example, if black women are disproportionately wrong, the question is flagged and may be removed or reworked. If not reported, the question is added to the test.

“We may stick to this test for technical reasons,” Hardy-Chandler told some members of the Kansas licensing board in October. “But we can also meet this test thanks to the work of our subject matter experts.”

Blaise Mesa


Kansas News Service

Kansans of color have lower first-time pass rates on the social work license exam.

Kansas outlook

The Kansas Behavioral Science Regulatory Board has almost no options on how it can move forward.

State law requires social workers in Kansas to be licensed with a nationally unionized test, and the ASWB test is the only player in that game. Suspending use of the test would mean leaving more social workers without a license or breaking state law by not having a testing requirement.

But the calls for change persist.

Becky Fast, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the state could have more social workers if it didn’t have the current guidelines.

She says Kansas doesn’t need her three levels of testing.

She said disparities in pass scores drive away qualified candidates. The students have already obtained a diploma. She argues that this is sufficient proof of their competence.

“It’s not like you haven’t passed the tests in four years,” Fast said.

Despite concerns, the number of social workers is growing in Kansas. The total number of individuals has jumped with 500 additional licensed social workers since July 2018. Kansas has just over 8,000 licensed social workers.

Social workers do not need a license to get a job, but the most desirable jobs usually require a license. Without certain licenses, someone could cross the state’s western border into Colorado, requiring social workers to take fewer licensing exams for certain levels of certification.

A total of 37 states and territories have bachelor’s, master’s, and clinical licenses like Kansas. Eight states only have a clinical license and a master’s degree. Two states have a license for the highest level of expertise.

Carr, a PhD student at the University of Kansas, said the tests needed top-down changes. The questions could be reworked and field surveys could be conducted, but problems will arise again if the group rewriting and revising the questions lacks diversity.

“We have to pass this test,” Carr said, “but that’s not necessarily an indication of your practice skills.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at [email protected].

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