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Issue Paper on Social Work Licensing in New York State (LMSW)
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Issue Paper on Social Work Licensing in New York State
The Qualifying Examination for the LMSW

January 2010


Since New York adopted a statute in 2002 requiring almost all graduates of masters degree programs in social work to become Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSWs), a high percentage of all social workers must take an exam following graduation in order obtain the license. Most graduates of social work programs pass the licensing exam; however, a significant number do not.

That there is a significant cohort of social workers that is not passing the exam is an important issue for the social work profession. Unfortunately, reliable data is lacking to fully understand the issues relating to this outcome. NASW-NYC has received reports from the field which highlight differential passage rates between graduates from upstate schools and downstate schools, between social workers whose primary language is English and those for whom English is a second language, and between social workers of color and those who are white. The anecdotal information in these reports underscores the need for the profession to have access to data.

The Need for Data

The organization that develops licensing exams for the social work profession that are used in most states, and specifically utilized by the State Education Department’s Office of the Professions in New York, is the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). ASWB has invested resources into assuring that the exam is reliable, valid, and fair, and it makes public how it attempts to achieve this. Nevertheless, questions remain as to whether ASWB adequately addresses questions of cultural competency, and more dialogue is needed about this. In addition, ASWB does not offer aggregate data to the public, including the social work profession, to enhance understanding about whether certain groups of social workers are differentially passing the exam. Having such data will not by itself resolve the issue of whether or not the test is fair and is measuring good social work practice, but it would help determine whether any additional steps need to be taken to assure that the exam is worthy of the profession’s confidence.

Competency in an Increasingly Diverse New York

It is well recognized within social work that the profession and human service programs are challenged to competently meet the needs of today’s New Yorkers. These challenges with licensing are happening at a time when New York City, as well as New York State overall, is becoming increasingly diverse. Whites have been in the minority in the City since the 1980s and are now a minority in the greater metropolitan area, as well. Immigrants now make up 36% of the City’s population, and a language other than English is spoken in 48% of the City’s households. Because of this demographic trend, NASW-NYC and the schools of social work have made it a priority to increase the diversity of the social work workforce. In addition, culturally competency is now an essential aspect of social work practice.

A Central Question About the Licensing Exam

A central question is whether the licensing exam is appropriately screening out unqualified social workers or whether competent practitioners are unfairly being denied access to the profession. Standardized exams have utility in screening applicants for advancement within elementary schools as well as for admission into colleges and the professions. At the same time, there is uncertainty as to whether such exams are a complete and adequate measure of factors relevant to future performance. There is, therefore, a compelling reason to further explore this question with the State Education Department’s Office of the Professions as well as with ASWB.

Responsibility of All Stakeholders

The issues involved in assuring that the social work profession develops a diverse and competent work force are important and, and at the same time, complex. It is the responsibility of each individual social worker to pass the exam. At the same time, NASW, the schools of social work, human service employers, the State Education Department’s Office of the Professions, and the Association of Social Work Boards must continue to address these issues. The consumers of social work service should expect competent practice. Only by addressing these issues will we have done due diligence in assuring that we are meeting this standard.

Actions Needed

• All social workers need to prepare for passing the social work licensing examination.
• Schools of social work need to continue to take steps to assure that their graduates pass the exam.
• Social work employers should be encouraged to support their staff to the fullest extent possible in preparing for the exam. If feasible, this might include paying for the cost of exam preparation workshops or applying to take the exam.
• The State Education Department’s Office of the Professions can help address the need for access to the social work profession and that consumers are assured of culturally and linguistically competent practitioners. Whether performance criteria other than the exam could be utilized for obtaining the LMSW should be explored.
• The Association of Social Work Boards, given its expertise in test construction and evaluation, can be requested to assist the social work profession in New York to better understand the issues involved in the licensing examination. It is also essential that ASWB make public aggregated data on the pass rate by relevant demographic variables.
• NASW-NYC will continue to offer high quality, low cost opportunities for preparing for the exam. NASW-NYC will also work with all other stakeholders to address the issues identified in this document. In addition, NASW-NYC can explore the issues raised in this paper with interested NASW chapters to elecit their involvement in issues relating to what is a national exam.

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