Social workers are essentially the Swiss Army knives of mental health professionals. After receiving their master’s degree in social work, graduates can work in prisons, schools, non-profits, substance-abuse clinics and as therapists. There's not enough of them, at least not enough to service hundreds of school districts throughout the state. A Queens lawmaker has begun a push to do away with a controversial certification test in the hopes of providing better services to those in need. Ideally, it will allow a more diverse range of professionals to impact their communities, she says.
Social workers are required to take a clinical exam that a 2022 Association of Social Work Boards report said between 2018 and 2021, 45% of Black first-time test takers passed compared to 83.9% of white first-time test takers. First-time Latino test-takers passed 65.1% of the time and Asians passed 72% of the time. Passing the test grants a social worker the license to operate within that state.
The Association of Social Work Boards creates the test, which is proctored by a third party, and charges a fee to take it. Even as their data suggests that certain demographics are underserved by the test, they believe it should remain.
Some social workers said the test was a difficult experience and served as nothing more than a barrier to people of color to do meaningful work in their communities. In some cases, repeated failure means they’ve had to leave the profession, either taking a pay cut to work a lower level but related position or simply exiting the field entirely.
Assembly Member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas of Jackson Heights re-introduced legislation on Wednesday to eliminate the testing requirement in New York and hopefully, get more social workers into the field. In light of the statistics and testimony she has received from social workers who have run into issues with the exam, the change is necessary Gonzalez-Rojas said.
She said the test is biased towards minorities, immigrants and older test takers.
“We started looking into this issue because we're in a moment where we're faced with essentially a number of crises that require the skilled support of social workers,” she said.
A 2022 audit from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said 95% of school districts in the state didn’t have the recommended social worker ratio of one for every 250 students. In New York City, that figure improved to 80%.
“There's no evidence that shows that this exam impacts the quality of care that a social worker provides and there's a movement across the country to begin eliminating the exams,” Gonzalez-Rojas added. “I know, Rhode Island and Illinois just passed a statute, and Illinois in particular, saw 3,000 more social workers become licensed and out in the field and doing the important work as a result of eliminating the barrier of the exam.”
Melissa Begg, dean of Columbia University’s School of Social Work, agrees and said that the test was frivolous given the rigorous training an accredited master’s program puts future social workers through.
“Through extensive practicum learning, each student in New York State is required to obtain at least 900 hours of supervised, hands-on experience to apply what they are learning in the classroom -- in real time, and with real clients,” Begg said in a statement. “An additional written exam creates an unnecessary, systemic hurdle for these knowledgeable, well-prepared social workers at a time of profound shortage and high demand, especially now, when they are needed more than ever.”
Gonzalez-Rojas said her bill is pretty straightforward, not getting rid of the test entirely but amending state law so that it is no longer required to receive a state license.
The Association of Social Work Boards said that while it has understood that the testing process has been imperfect in the past, it has responded both to its own data and calls for test reform. “ASWB is proud of its licensing exam program as one part of an overall system that educates, licenses, and regulates the social work profession. The exams serve as uniform, objective measures of social work knowledge and skills, and their development meets industry standards that include multiple layers of anti-bias review,” the association’s CEO Stacey Hardy-Chandler said in a statement. “We're glad to be having these conversations.”
She added that the organization purposely released test data to start a dialogue about the test and hoped to address other inequalities throughout the field. However, the association does not and has no intention of supporting any deemphasis of the test.
Curry Smith, spokesperson for the association said, “ASWB does not support legislation that would remove the exam requirement as a part of licensure,” adding it brings legitimacy to the profession.
At the same time, a social worker can work for nearly a decade in schools without a license while trying to pass the exam, raising questions about the degree to which the test measures a social worker's aptitude.
“At some point, I feel like okay I went to grad school, I can’t be that dumb,” said Liz Conde, a social worker at a public school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Like you kind of start doubting yourself.”
Conde, 48, said that she took the test three times, spending thousands of dollars in exam fees and tutoring costs before passing the test and saving her job. She said while still studying at SUNY Adelphi, she heard from other social workers that they’d failed the test 20 times.
“What makes me think I'm gonna pass it,” Conde said. “I was lucky I passed it finally but I had to put in a lot of money for private tutoring. I used the app, I used the boot camp, I used another lady. Like I just kept on looking. I felt like I was looking for doctors and no doctor could give me a diagnosis.”
Conde said taking the exam was already difficult enough as she already had test anxiety to contend with. Simply getting in the exam room brought her trouble she said due to Pearson Vue’s, the Association of Social Work Boards’ former test administrator, security policies.
“The experience is kind of like TSA but to the max,” Conde said, adding that some test-takers of color had their hair examined and received pat-downs.
She said it was “like you were in jail or something, like you’re gonna bring in contraband.”
Conde added the process was so stressful that rather than celebrating when she heard she passed the test, she had a severe panic attack. In a text message, she said, “this test put me under fire emotionally.”
The association announced in August that it would change test administrators in 2024, choosing PSI to administer exams and leaving Pearson. Hardy-Chandler said in an announcement PSI was chosen partly because of their close alignment with the association’s values.
Pearson was not immediately available for comment about their proctoring procedure.
Tara Alameda, 43, did not pass the exam and lost her job in 2021. She worked as a social worker at a high school in Jamaica, Queens for eight years before that and to stay in the building took a pay cut and a new position as a secretary.
“I cried,” Alameda said, “because I knew that there was nothing wrong with me and I knew that there was everything wrong with this exam.”
Like Conde, Alameda spent thousands of dollars in fees for tests and tutors but also took the test 11 times, never passing. She said the test, already difficult because of its hidden sample questions and verbiage, relied on test prep that asked future social workers to make broad generalizations about Hispanic and indigenous communities.
Test prep materials suggested Hispanics were all Catholics and indigenous people alcoholics, Alameda said. She added that while it is important to recognize demographic trends she didn’t understand why the preparation materials and eventual test questions focused on those perceptions rather than how to provide the best care.
One question on the test asking how to evaluate the best course of action for an indigenous child in foster care queried if the problems were caused by their parent’s alcohol abuse, Alameda said.
She asked, “Where are they really going with this?”
Conde and Alameda are both Puerto Rican and both wanted to become social workers for the same reason, to help kids in their communities.
“You don’t find people like me (in the industry). I'm a Puerto Rican woman. I don't find any of them. I don't find African American people,” said Alameda. “I don't find anybody of color. It’s just white dominant.”
She filed suit against the association in July in the Southern District Court of New York.
Gonzalez-Rojas said she hasn’t received any pushback on the bill or at least “not yet” but given the mental health crisis among the public especially among youth, the need is too great to not make changes.
“I think eliminating the barrier to entry into the field is one way to make sure that we're getting more qualified people who are of color and have the diverse experiences that are reflective of communities like mine,” she told City & State.
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