NASW-IA ASWB Test Disparities Response

Purpose Summary

NASW-IA has been engaged in conversations around the ASWB test pass rate disparities that ASWB released in 2022. This document shares a summary of what NASW-IA has learned from our 2022 Townhall and conversations with members and other NASW chapters. It includes recommendations for ASWB and next steps for NASW-IA.


A workgroup was formed to discuss townhall feedback, identify specific issues with ASWB, review alternatives and identify areas NASW-IA can impact. NASW-IA workgroup considered ASWB’s claim that the test assists boards in regulation of practitioners and client safety. We discussed concerns across the nation regarding the expectation of standardized tests and the lack of established alternatives to ASWB tests. Social Justice and equity were at the center of these discussions, constantly asking if many social workers continue to benefit professionally from a system that discriminates, oppresses and creates barriers to a diverse workforce. This document outlines the results and consideration of this workgroup and joins one of the many voices demanding these disparities be addressed.

NASW-IA stands with the NASW August 2022 statement: “All social work institutions - including ASWB and licensing boards, NASW and other associations, and social work higher education programs - must openly confront systemic racism within our profession. We must all commit to work to ensure reforms are made to ensure the licensing process is equitable for all, protecting the public without unnecessary gatekeeping and discrimination.”

NASW-IA stands with the National Association of Black Social Workers statement on ASWB and highlights the following:

“The institutional barriers experienced by thousands of practitioners to receive the highest level of licensure are not a failure of the test takers but a failure of the testing process. We must acknowledge the historical aspect of the information and the discriminatory practices prevalent systemically in Social Work education and licensure.”

We support the Council on Social Work Education’s demands to have a “full analysis of the data be made available for review beyond the descriptive analysis that has been shared to date.”

ASWB has neglected to reflect the values and ethics of the social work profession. The NASW Code of Ethics Standards 2.01 (Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues - Respect) and 4.04 (Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals – Dishonesty, Fraud, and Deception) require us to bring this to their attention.

In an open letter to social work deans and directors dated December 21, 2020, ASWB denied collecting demographic data for over two decades (DeCarlo, M., 12-2-21).

Nearly two years later, ASWB reported demographic data on test takers (ASWB, 8-5-22). ASWB stonewalled direct requests for information about testing when disparity was a concern. (National Association of Deans and Directors of Social Work Programs (NADD, 9-2-22)

ASWB exam includes questions about serving diverse populations but does not take into account the diverse populations who take the exam (DeCarlo, M., 2021)

Identifying Social Workers concerns

As documented in multiple forums such as conversations, blog posts, internal NASW member conversations, and townhall meetings NASW-IA recognizes barriers to change:

  • Fear of losing the integrity of the profession by not aligning with status quo
  • ASWB has promoted the myth that advocating for change to testing requirements can lead to deregulation
  • Standardized tests have been packaged as best practice despite evidence they are flawed
  • There is no clear alternative to the current test
  • Laws and regulations that have the test written into them (Iowa Code Chapter 154C.3.1.a(2) requires that a licensed social worker “Has passed an examination given by the board.” Iowa has normalized the general and clinical masters level exams while other states have different requirements for test taking and licensure(i.e. Illinois, Utah)

Historically, it has been the norm to call out agencies that are rooted in systemic racism and marginalization while not owning the role our organization has played. The challenging question is how much do we work within systems by their rules and how progressive can we be while still having power within systems to change them. Looking at our leverage in systems, do we have the power to step outside widely accepted professional standards and still create change? Or will we be replaced?

ASWB argues that prior and existing educational disparities are what is impacting pass rates. For example, “ASWB acknowledges that the personal and educational experiences that test-takers bring to the exam may affect how they perform on exam day and is committed to offering resources that may improve equity and opportunity.” (ASWB, 2-2-23)

Research supports there are multiple levels of systemic injustices starting at access to early education, food insecurity, and other barriers that follow individuals throughout their academic career (Elsesser, K., 12-11-19; Rosales, J. and Walker, T., 3-20-21).

We reject the idea that the standardized tests should add another level of barrier for people who have succeeded in challenging environments.

NASW-IA believes that there is a need to have a proficiency and competency measure in place before licensing, however, it should strive to be equitable and have the trust and transparency that ASWB currently lacks. (NASW Code of Ethics 5.02c)

While the Iowa Board of Social Work has some latitude to adopt accommodations that ASWB provides, it is ASWB that sets those parameters for test-takers across the country.

NASW-IA commitment to hold ASWB accountable

ASWB has announced plans to address disparities and changes they are making to current processes. NASW-IA will follow the implementation and evaluation of these initiatives to ensure ASWB adheres to these commitments and that they are relevant and related to test disparities.

NASW-IA demands that ASWB operates with ethical behavior as outlined below for all level of tests offered.

For immediate action

Recognize and acknowledge their role in disparity:

  • Start operating with ethical behavior including transparency and honest reporting of data, collaboration with requests for additional information on question specific disparities and recognize more equitable tests is a fundamental right of social workers.
  • Drop the 90 days wait requirement to retake the exam regardless of score.
  • Return options for bilingual dictionaries and increase language options.
  • Offer test prep materials online at no cost for a minimum of five years to reduce gap in disparity.
  • Reduce cost for retaking the test (Current cost is $230 masters for $260 for clinical).
  • Provide pass rate data by intersection of identity (race, ethnicity, age, language) to better determine areas of focus and support preparation efforts.
  • Release scoring information (how questions are selected to be tested, how they determine which tests are “harder” and which are “easier” based on scoring pass rates).
  • Release comprehensive data, including any test questions or thematic areas that have a disparity in correct answer rate between those with higher passing rates (younger white women whose first language is English) and those with lower pass rates.

By End of 2024

  • Reevaluate the workshops for creating questions and assess bias in selection criteria.
  • Hire a third party to research impact in states that:
    • have removed the masters level test.
    • compare disciplinary and public actions in states requiring ASWB testing for licensing at the master’s level to those who don’t require master’s level testing.

By End of 2025

  • Create more equitable and empirically valid testing through different styles of testing, and have transparency in creation of questions.
  • Provide equitable tests in multiple languages with respect to idioms, grammar and context.

While we have the power to call on ASWB to align with social work values with the hope they will practice what they claim to measure, we also have to look at areas NASW-IA can impact more directly.

NASW-IA values a diverse workforce

We acknowledge there may be multiple barriers to becoming a social worker, including exam prep, unpaid practicums, studying for the exam while employed, and lack of a living income in the field. The exam itself as well as preparation for the exam are two important areas that should be addressed. People sitting for the exam want to work in the field of social work. They want to have the added professional designation of being licensed, which allows clients to have some assurance that any complaints against a clinician will be reviewed and they have recourse if they feel they have been harmed. Licensing is a critical component needed for the profession. The question is, does the ASWB exam add validity and security to that license or can a license obtained through other pathways provide that protection?

Barriers to social workers obtaining licensure impact more than the individual social worker.We have a shortage of mental health providers and other social service professionals in the nation right now.

As required by the NASW Code of Ethics, social workers have the responsibility to clients to be competent, including culturally competent (Standards 1.04 and 1.05).

Having a culturally and linguistically diverse profession with variety of age, race, ethnicity, ability, gender and sexual orientation will make our organizations stronger. Diversity in thought, life experience, and knowledge allows the profession to have new ideas to address long-standing problems. It allows for different perspectives to be shared with other mental health staff, making us all more informed and better advocates for our clients. It also can give more choice to the client population in having clinicians that reflect their identities and experiences (Code of Ethics 1.04, 1.05, 3.01).

NASW-IA Commitment

NASW-IA is committed to reducing test disparity as required by Code of Ethics Standard 6.04, Social and Political Action

NASW-IA will bring awareness to the need for better education, equitable access to health care, addressing food insecurity and other social determinates of health that our members regularly advocate for with their client population and in their own lives. (NASW Code of Ethics 6.01) Advocating for better pay for our profession (Medicaid reimbursement rates, living wage, posting jobs with salary explicitly stated) by offering an exam prep course at cost to participants by 2025 NASW-IA will

  • Consider opportunities to provide additional pathways to licensure at the BSW and MSW level
  • Explore opportunities for special circumstances pathway (e.g., Minnesota offers alternative for those born outside the U.S. whose primary language is not English)
  • Discuss opportunities to enhance test access with the Iowa Board of Social Work
  • Create access to study materials and content to students and professionals considering taking the test:
    • Get feedback from students and professionals about resources that would be helpful
    • Create a test information “hub” with materials (videos or video list with links, non-copyright materials, testimonials for what worked with studying)
    • Explore Branch Event opportunities to review testing materials and hear from recent test takers on strategies and preparation
    • Advocate for universities to open test prep to non-students who have a time lapse between graduation and test taking and to those out of school needing to take the clinical exam
  • Be transparent about the test disparities with social workers:
    • Discuss the disparity of how the test is written for white test takers and how exam takers can best prepare for how they approach each question
    • Promote accommodation options and process to highlight ways prospective test takers can utilize available accommodations to enhance exam taking conditions
    • Normalize testing fears and reduce shame in failure

5. Consult with language experts to inform best practices in standardized test prep for social workers whose primary language is not English

Member Action Steps

  • Email ASWB with demands for action
  • Recent test takers share experience taking the test at branch events to give prep strategies
  • Support future test takers to prepare for the test whether in the classroom or workplace

NASW-Iowa Workgroup members

Mercedes Bern-Klug, PhD, MSW, MA
Debra Carr, LMSW
Kristi Lohmeier, PhD
Densie Rathman, MSW, Executive Director, NASW-IA
Julia Rose, MSW, LISW, President, NASW-IA Chapter Board
A’Lisa Walker, LBSW

Diversity Committee of NASW-IA

Diamond Denney, LMSW, Diversity Committee Chair
Libby Fry, LMSW, CNP
Kimberlee Gregory, MSW, LISW
Nicole Lepley, LMSW
Janice B. Lane Schroeder, LMSW

Reference and supplementary materials

A Short History of Standardized Tests - JSTOR Daily

History of Standardized Testing in the United States | NEA

Lawsuit Claims SAT And ACT Are Biased—Here’s What Research Says (

General background on bias

The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing | NEA

Racial Bias and ASWB Exams: A Failure of Data Equity - Matthew P. DeCarlo, 2022 (

Ensuring item fairness in the ASWB exams on Vimeo

NABSW Open Letter to Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) - National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW)

ASWB licensing exam data confirms concerns over racial disparities (

News | CSWE

Measuring competence fairly - Association of Social Work Boards (

Examination Program Yearbook - Association of Social Work Boards (

Code of Ethics: English (

Code of Ethics: Spanish (

Coohey, C., Landsman, M.J. & Cummings, S.P (2023) Teaching strategies to reduce test anxiety among MSW students for licensure, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 43:2, 226-238 DOI: 10.1080/08841233.2023.2170116