ASWB: End Discriminatory Social Work Licensing Exams

ASWB: End Discriminatory Social Work Licensing Exams

August 13, 2022
Signatures: 12,649Next Goal: 15,000
Support now

Why this petition matters

Started by Social Workers

In the midst of a nationwide mental health crisis and shortage of providers, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) has been and continues to use an unvalidated exam with dramatic biases that prevent Black, Latine/Hispanic, and Indigenous social workers from becoming licensed—and it must stop (1, 2). This is a petition to halt the use of ASWB testing, demand an alternate path to licensure, and call for financial reparations. 

Relevant History:

ASWB is a regulatory body incorporated in 1979 whose primary responsibility is disseminating exams for credentialing social workers (3). These exams are currently mandatory for gaining licensure in nearly every US state, at various levels of licensure. Passing the clinical licensing exams, in addition to completing mandatory supervision hours, allows social workers to practice privately, provide supervision, access leadership roles, and earn higher wages in a notably underpaid field. In some states, licensure exams are required at the Bachelors and Masters level before graduates of social work programs are able to use the title of social worker, which only adds additional career expenses and barriers.

Redundancy of Exams:

Are ASWB’s exams necessary? An increasing number say there are not, and at present, not all states require ASWB’s exams for basic social work licensure. On August 6, 2021, Governor Pritzker of Illinois signed Senate Bill 1632 (SB1632) into law, removing testing requirements for bachelors and masters level social workers (although the clinical exam remains) (4). The removal of these testing requirements in Illinois, as advocated by the NASW-Illinois Chapter, resulted in almost 3,000 newly licensed social workers in the first six months of 2022–compared to 421 social workers licensed in that same time period in 2021 (5).

This increase in licensing helps address the dangerous shortage of behavioral health providers, and demonstrates the path to licensure does not and should not require the ASWB. Instead, social workers can continue to demonstrate competence through degree completion and accrual of extensive supervised hours. 

Confirmation of Exam Bias:

Beyond lack of necessity, the ASWB clinical exam is also demonstrably biased, as evidenced by a recently revealed pass-rate disparity that dramatically favors white test-takers. In the 2022 ASWB Exam Candidate Handbook, ASWB claims they “ensure that the examinations are fair measures of competency regardless of the race or gender of the test-taker” and that “ASWB exams are statistically free from race and gender bias” (6). However, until August 5th 2022, the ASWB refused to provide demographic data related to exam pass rates, ignoring extensive external pressure to do so. In fact, ASWB has historically denied having this information (7, 8). 

With demographic data now released, the obvious and  significant disparity in pass-rates makes it clear the ASWB has created exams that are deeply flawed in design, causing significant harm to Black, Latine/Hispanic, and Indigenous social workers (9). 

First time pass rates of the ASWB clinical licensure exam are as follows: Black (45%), Indigenous (63%), Latine/Hispanic (65%), and White (84%)—a difference of nearly 20-40% for white test-takers.

These numbers are grossly disproportionate and demonstrate a failure in the exam’s design. However, rather than acknowledging the exam as biased and responsible for this outcome, the ASWB maintains that the exam “continues to reflect the highest standards of validity and reliability” and suggests the enormous disparity is a result of “stereotype threat”—or a test-takers own fear that their performance will reinforce negative stereotypes of the group they are a member of (10).

At no point in their analysis does ASWB take accountability, and instead deflects blame back onto test-takers. The assertion that the problem lies with test-takers only reinforces the racism inherent to the test. In essence, ASWB is suggesting that Black, Latine/Hispanic, and Indigenous social workers, by virtue of their race, are less capable of passing standardized tests. This is a textbook description of racism: the belief that a group of people are less competent, less intelligent, and less capable because of their race. 

In their discussion of results, ASWB also attempts to mask the racism inherent to the pass-rate disparity by focusing on the number of social workers who “eventually pass" the licensing exam after repeated attempts. They do not share how many times these social workers take the test in order to pass, or acknowledge the costs incurred (a minimum of $260 for every ASWB exam). By emphasizing the need to take the exam repeatedly in order to pass, the ASWB ultimately reinforces that licensure is an exercise of financial resources, rather than ability.

Of note: Despite ASWB’s effort to paint a more positive picture of their data, the “eventually passed" rate still reveals a striking disparity: Black (57%), Indigenous (74%), Latine/Hispanic (77%), and White (91%)—a difference of 14-34% in favor of white test-takers. 

Again—this disparity is grossly disproportionate, and reflects an exam that is deeply flawed in design. 

Foundational Bias:

Rather than blaming test-takers, the ASWB should take responsibility for the racism and bias inherent to their testing process—from the design, to language barriers, to the use of standardized tests at all.

How is the ASWB exam created?  ASWB bases their exams off their own “Analysis of the Practice of Social Work”. This analysis has occurred six times since 1981 and involves a survey of thousands of social workers regarding the field. It is from this survey that the exams are built (11). 

Although ASWB claims their analysis gives a “highly accurate profile of social work,” the survey disproportionately solicits feedback from white social workers, at nearly 80% of respondents. This is despite the fact that 22% of new social workers are Black, and 14% are Latino (12). From the onset, the exam is skewed towards the perspective, experiences, and values of white social workers. 

Further reinforcing this emphasis, the ASWB makes it clear that “social work licensing exams are administered only in English” (13). One in five US residents speak a language other than English at home, and many social workers provide service exclusively in a language other than English (14). By restricting the licensure exam only to fluent English speakers, and offering the use of an English dictionary as an “accommodation” for those who use English as a second language, the ASWB has effectively turned the licensure exam into a racist literacy test. 

This language-based discrimination not only harms social workers who practice in other languages, but it harms the communities they serve by reducing access to licensed clinicians. If a client is seeking services but cannot receive them in their native language, this creates not only communication barriers, but also creates cultural barriers to high quality services. The lack of mental health providers is particularly dire for marginalized communities, and language concordant services are a critical aspect of those supports (15).

More broadly, we also call into question the use of exams at all, as standardized testing is known to be biased. Even the past CEO Dwight Hymans voiced publicly that standardized testing has disparities in outcomes (16). The history of standardized testing is one of racial bias, and dismantling white supremacy means moving away from this type of gatekeeping measure (17). As social workers, we value social justice, and no standardized exam will be aligned with that. 

Call to Action: 

We stress that ASWB has never shown that their tests are related to actual performance as a social worker. We see these exams as harmful, racist gatekeeping tools. Due to the now publicized data highlighting significant pass-rate disparity, the below signees demand:

  1. That ASWB exams be discontinued. State social work boards should immediately initiate legislation to remove the use of the ASWB Bachelors, Masters, clinical, and generalist exams. The use of tests with such significant and obvious bias will only increase numbers of Black and Brown examinees who remain unlicensed, and consequently, may leave the field altogether.
  2. That state boards immediately adopt an alternate licensing model. In the absence of ASWB’s foundationally flawed and biased exams, social work licensure would be earned primarily through degree completion and accruing supervised clinical hours.
  3. That ASWB make financial reparations using their net assets of $33 million to cover the expected cost. ASWB must initiate contact with examinees at any level who paid for multiple examinations of the same test, and offer a monetary rebate as close as possible to the amount the test-taker spent on second, third, fourth, or more examinations. ASWB should also compensate test takers who were discriminated against for lost salary due to not qualifying for social work positions requiring a license. Additionally, ASWB should make financial contributions to Black, Latine/Hispanic, and Indigenous communities, who have been harmed by this racially discriminatory exam resulting in a lack of Black, Latine/Hispanic, and Indigenous social workers in their communities.

To be clear: ASWB’s report isn’t simply an interesting data set that needs further research. It’s a reflection of trauma—of careers that have been stalled, of lost wages, of communities deprived of clinical leadership. It diminishes the integrity of social work, and demands immediate action.

Join us in holding ASWB accountable for the grievous harms they have caused, and in ending their legacy of discrimination in the social work field. 


Tay D. Robinson, DSW, CSW; Charla Yearwood, LCSW; Shimon Cohen, LCSW; Alex Remy, LCSW; Brit Holmberg, LCSW; Jen Hirsch, LMSW, APHSW-C; Matt DeCarlo, PhD, MSW; Gerald Joseph, MSW, ACM, CTP; Kim Young, LCSW; Cassandra Walker, LCSW CCTP; Sierra M. Wetmore, MSW; Bethany Matson, MSW


  1. The United States Government. (2022, July 15). Fact sheet: President Biden to announce strategy to address our National Mental Health Crisis, as part of unity agenda in his first state of the union. The White House. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  2. As part of president Biden's Mental Health Strategy, HHS Awards nearly $105 million to states and territories to strengthen crisis call center services in advance of July transition to 988. SAMHSA. (2022, April 19). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  3. Manual for New Board Members: Where it began - (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  4. Staff, N. A. S. W.-I. L. (2022, August 6). Learning more about removing testing requirements for LSWS with SB1632. National Association of Social Workers, Illinois Chapter. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  5. ASWB first-time pass results released: This is not ok. (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  6. ASWB exam candidate handbook. (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  7. DeCarlo, M. P. (2021). Racial bias and ASWB exams: A failure of data equity. Research on Social Work Practice, 32(3), 255–258.
  8. Social Work Leadership Roundtable Town Hall on Racial Equity. (2020). NASW - Facebook. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  9. Contributing to the conversation: 2022 ASWB Exam Pass Rate Analysis. Association of Social Work Boards. (2022, August 8). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  10. Contributing to the conversation: 2022 ASWB Exam Pass Rate Analysis. Association of Social Work Boards. (2022, August 8). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  11. Manual for New Board Members: Where it began - (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  12. New Report Provides Insights into New Social Workers’ Demographics, Income, and Job Satisfaction. NASW - National Association of Social Workers. (2020, December 11). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  13. Requesting English as a second language arrangements. Association of Social Work Boards. (2021, March 19). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  14. Camarota, S. A. (2015, October 5). One in five U.S. residents speaks foreign language at home. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  15. States look for help with bilingual mental health. The Pew Charitable Trusts. (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  16. Social Work Leadership Roundtable Town Hall on Racial Equity. (2020). NASW - Facebook. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
  17. Walker, J. R. and T. (n.d.). The racist beginnings of standardized testing. NEA. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from



Support now
Signatures: 12,649Next Goal: 15,000
Support now