Kathy Elisca Clermont is on the cusp of becoming a licensed clinical social worker in New Jersey. As a first-generation Haitian American, the 31-year-old has ambitions to combine her cultural beliefs with mainstream therapies, dismantling preconceived notions and stigma around mental health treatment, and making care more broadly accessible.
As desperately as her field needs her, it’s been three years since Clermont completed her clinical training and earned a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University. And she still can’t land the job she wants.
Standing in her way is the Association of Social Work Boards’ clinical social work licensing exam. The standardized test is required to obtain a social work license in most states, on top of completing supervised field hours and graduating from an accredited educational program.
Clermont has taken the licensing exam three times since 2020, yet despite months of studying each time, she has landed just shy of passing.
“It hurts you mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said.
Clermont’s circumstance is unfortunately not uncommon, according to a first-ever public release of data on who passed the test nationwide. Last month, the Association of Social Work Boards revealed that people of color are less likely to pass the licensing exam than their white counterparts. The largest disparity is between white test-takers — 84% of whom pass the exam the first time — and Black test-takers, who pass on the first try just 45% of the time.
The Virginia-based association responsible for administering the exam reports the same racial disparities existed among those who took the clinical exam multiple times. In those cases, 91% of white people passed, and just 57% of Black people.
The licensing exams are used to determine competence to practice social work “ethically and safely.” Passing the exam helps secure employment, as well as opportunities for promotions, supervisory roles and higher wages.
“While other pass rate disparities exist, the most jarring and disappointing gap is in the rates reported for Black candidates,” Stacey Hardy-Chandler, the CEO of the Association of Social Work Boards, and the board of directors said in a joint statement last month.
Hardy-Chandler, who started her position in July, and the board said that the association firmly believes “that this revelation does not in any way reflect on the ability of Black candidates to demonstrate competence.” Rather, “it illuminates the historical burdens of racial trauma, marginalization, and social injustice to which Black candidates have been disproportionately subjected along their journey to licensure.”
The release of the test pass rates has prompted conversations large and small. In recent weeks, the Minnesota and New Jersey chapters of the National Association of Social Workers have held “virtual listening sessions” to discuss the exam data. Roughly 100 social workers joined in each state.
Attendees expressed outrage at the racial disparities, recounted their own experiences taking and re-taking the exam and brainstormed alternative tools to evaluate competency. Several called into question the necessity of a standardized test.
“There is no data that says the exams are an indication of someone’s ability to practice their skill or their knowledge,” said Karen Goodenough, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
As a result, test takers are left feeling unworthy, and potential clients denied the opportunity to the assistance they could provide.
“People feel stigmatized and marginalized when they cannot pass the test — as if it’s something wrong with them,” said Melissa Haley, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers. “And that’s a problem.”
Haley added that using standardized tests to evaluate competency runs contrary to the very foundation of her profession, which focuses on a person’s individual circumstances, needs and experiences. But for the workers who handle these cases, “there is only one way to get to licensure, which is to pass the exam in a very linear fashion that does not reflect the cultural differences in this country.”
Still, more information is needed to determine what systemic issues are causing test result disparities, said Tawanda Hubbard, a licensed clinical social worker and associate professor of professional practice at Rutgers University School of Social Work. Hubbard said as long as there continues to be a required exam, there should be a deeper look at the scoring algorithm and the types of questions people from different backgrounds miss.
“This is not an individual problem,” Hubbard said. And gathering more data will “bring about greater fairness and equity.”
Long-awaited data, long-observed trends
Heads of professional groups representing social workers in Minnesota, Michigan and New Jersey said in interviews that they’ve spent years asking the national licensing body for demographic information on who passes the tests.
In a 2020 letter to social worker deans and directors Dwight Hymans, the former CEO of the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), responded to the calls for test result transparency. Hymans said that the exams had come under increased scrutiny in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, but noted: “ASWB does not collect and thus does not release exam outcomes based on demographics.”
By November the following year, the association’s board of directors made the decision to gather, analyze and release performance data. The introduction to the “2022 ASWB Exam Pass Rate Analysis” describes its findings as a demonstration of the association’s “commitment to participating in data-driven conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
A spokesperson told The Imprint further work is underway, including an evaluation “of all aspects” of the licensing exam.
The findings revealed so far analyzed data from the social work board’s five exams of different educational levels, over a 10-year period. Last year, the association administered almost 67,000 exams, a number that has grown steadily over the past decade. While the majority of those taking the test continue to be white people, the proportion of test takers from “historically marginalized communities” has also grown. The report defines those groups as “Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latino, multiracial, or Native American/Indigenous peoples.”
The highest pass rates are found among white people, women, younger test-takers and those whose first language is English.
While the report is a first, the racial disparities aren’t novel to many in the field.
“I’m completely unsurprised,” said Widian Nicola, an assistant social work professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a practicing therapist.
Over the years, Nicola said she has watched many of her students, especially students of color, struggle to pass the licensing exam. High fees for tests and the resources needed to prepare contribute to the difficulty. Some told Nicola they thought about leaving the profession altogether.
“There’s been a massive need for clinicians and practitioners in the field and so if there’s delays for our practitioners to go into the field and respond to that need, it’s going to create a backlog of need for the community itself,” she said. “And guess who the community is that’s going to suffer the most? Marginalized communities.”
Because the exam is only administered in English, still others are pushed out who may be the most equipped to serve their communities. Bilingual practitioners are especially hard to come by.
“It’s really almost impossible to find a Black therapist and then, going up the ladder, therapists who speak other languages,” said Jesselly De La Cruz, a bilingual practitioner based in New Jersey. She provides clinical mental health services in English and Spanish.
When De La Cruz took her licensing exam over 10 years ago, she said she was terribly anxious. There was a lot on the line. Her dad had suffered a stroke in her last semester of graduate school and De La Cruz was responsible for providing for her household.
“If I failed, it was essentially putting on hold my economic stability and that of my family,” she said.
A testing trend seen elsewhere
Standardized tests of all types have been found to push out people of color, including the Scholastic Aptitude Test for college admissions, bar exams for attorneys and pharmacist licensing tests. According to an article published last year by the National Education Association, standardized tests “have been instruments of racism and a biased system” with historic roots showing they were designed to prove that immigrants were intellectually inferior to white people. Because standardized tests pave the way to greater opportunities, they sideline people of color from opportunities to access higher education, careers and professional success.
Yet as with the growing movement to end standardized college entrance exams, there are now calls to end the national test for social workers.
An online petition created by 12 social workers urges state licensing boards to push for legislation to discontinue the exam and calls for alternative pathways to licensure based on degree completion and supervised clinical hours. The petition so far has more than 6,000 signatures.
Its authors call the recent report on racial disparities in test results “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.”
The petition also demands financial reparations for test-takers who have had to sit multiple times for the exam, which costs more than $200.
Not all states require a license to be employed as a social worker.
In California a license is only required for social workers who engage in clinical practice.
Last year in Illinois, the governor signed a bill into law that removed the requirement for non-clinical social workers to take the licensure test. According to the National Association of Social Workers in Illinois, the change resulted in almost 3,000 new licensed social workers in the first six months of 2022. During the same period in 2021, just 421 social workers became licensed.
High costs, high stakes
Clermont was devastated when she failed the exam for the third time. She was four points away from passing — the closest she had ever gotten.
The almost $800 she had spent taking the exam three times — in addition to the cost of prep courses and books — could have gone toward her student loans or other bills. Meanwhile, without a license and expenses mounting, she struggled to find a job.
As she evaluates her next career steps, she is working as an advocate for domestic violence survivors. Part of her role is educating her clients on their legal options and helping them access mental health counseling.
And while her job incorporates some elements of social work, Clermont said it’s ultimately not what she went to school for. Taking the social work licensing exam a fourth time could mean putting herself through months of study and revisiting the disappointment of failure.
“I have thought about leaving the social work field,” Clermont said. “And I hate the fact that I was thinking about it because of an exam.”