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Alabama graduates struggle with social work licensing exam, bias

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

In 2020, Steve Duer, executive director of Agape of Central Alabama, was looking to hire another licensed social worker at the private adoption and foster care agency. 

He received plenty of applications, but couldn’t make a hire.

“They would have the degree, but not the license,” Duer told Alabama Daily News recently. State law requires a licensed social worker handle some of the paperwork around adoptions. A licensed social worker himself, Duer started doing a bit of research. 

“There are plenty of people graduating, they’re just not able to pass the licensing test,” he said. 

The below-average licensure pass rates for Alabama graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees have been on Alabama education leaders’ radar for several years.

Alabama Commission on Higher Education Commissioner Executive Director Jim Purcell said he convened the deans of social work at public universities in a few years to look at the exam rates. Part of the motivation was the need for licensed social workers at DHR and other places.

State law requires anyone calling themselves a social worker to have a license.

Earlier this month, Alabama Department of Human Resources Commissioner Nancy Buckner told a panel of lawmakers that staff turnover in the department’s child welfare division hit 54% in July and that she struggles with staff shortages in other divisions too. Across the department, Buckner said she needs about 400 to 500 additional employees, including social workers.

The department began requiring licenses for front line child welfare staff in May 2000 as part of a federal judge’s orders to improve the child welfare system.

Social workers must attain licensure within a six-month probationary period.

“Licensed social workers are in high demand all over the country and Alabama is no different,” a statement from DHR to Alabama Daily News said. “(The department) competes with many entities for the limited number of licensed social workers in the State. These entities include schools, home health, hospice, hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities, and private non-profit agencies.

“This competition coupled with a low licensure pass rate makes recruitment and retention challenging.”

The passage rates worry Duer, who has a bachelor’s and master’s in social work from two Alabama universities, for multiple reasons.

“As an employer, it concerns me,” Duer said. “As a social worker, the ethical side of continuing to have students come through these programs that are not producing licensed social workers concerns me.”

The Alabama State Board of Social Worker Examiners did not immediately respond to questions from Alabama Daily News, but did note that Alabamians taking the clinical licensure exam — the third and highest licensure offered — in Alabama did pass at a higher rate than the rest of the U.S. and Canada.

That’s good, Duer said.

“But the only people who are going to pursue that are people who have made it through the other tiers,” he said.

Racial bias in exams

Recent data from the national exam authority, the Association of Social Work Boards, show Black test takers nationwide fail the exam at a significantly higher rate than whites.

“There is clear evidence that the test has some bias in it,” Dawna Nelson, a social work educator and research fellow at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. She said that’s long been suspected, but an August report confirmed it.

The national association’s analysis of 2018-2021 pass rates for the bachelor’s exam show 82% of white test takers pass, compared to only 38% of Black test takers. That gap was lesser but still significant in the master’s-level and clinical-level exams.

In a statement last month, ASWB leaders said the analysis is “an important starting point in a collective process to better help all test-takers be equally prepared for success on the examinations.”

Nelson said that about 40% of social work graduates in Alabama are Black and passage rates reflect that national data.

According to the ASWB, 46% of Alabama graduates with bachelor’s degrees taking the licensure exam for the first time in 2021 passed. That compares to a U.S. and Canadian pass rate of 68.7%. Sixty-five percent Alabama graduates with master’s degrees passed the exam the first time, compared to 73% across the U.S. and Canada. 

Would-be social workers in any state take the same test. Information by individual Alabama university can be found here.

Nelson said that besides bias in the exams, there are systemic issues impacting people of color, including test preparation.

“These test prep courses are expensive, and so when you have people who are already coming from economically disadvantaged communities seeking a social work degree, once they finish that degree they come out with more debt and they can’t access those test prep courses as readily.” 

To improve those rates, Nelson said she’d like universities, state entities and employers make sure graduates have access to that test prep.

Agape also gives new employees six months to pass the exam and provides funds they can use for test preparation and the agency covers the testing costs.

“We’re doing that because we’re seeing the numbers and we want to encourage workers to pass the test,” he said.

And if they don’t pass, they can still be employed at social services agencies.

“But it limits their options,” Duer said. And their potential income.

Meanwhile, licensed social workers are required to have a continued training to maintain their licenses. Workers who aren’t licensed do not.

“It impacts the quality of services that children and families and vulnerable people receive,” Duer said.

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