California is in the transition process: moving from use of a state-specific licensing exam to a national exam administered through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). With this development, all 50 states are on the same page. ASWB examinations are a part of the process of determining who is qualified to practice social work in all U.S. jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions use ASWB exams only for the highest level(s) while others use them for all social workers including those at the undergraduate level.
The same level of performance is required in all jurisdictions, though the score may be reported differently. (This is because some states have language on the books that references a particular number or score.)
A tremendous amount of work has gone into the development of these exams. They are based on practice analysis of U.S. and Canadian social workers – and they evolve as the profession does. There have been fully five practice studies conducted since 1983. The most recent one was published in 2010. The DSM V (the new edition of the diagnostic manual for mental disorders) will bring some changes to the practice of clinical social work, but any resulting changes in the test are not slated to take place before 2015.
There are four exams, corresponding to four levels of practice: baccalaureate, master, advanced generalist, and clinical. An associate’s exam is sometimes referenced, but it’s not really a separate exam. It covers the same content as the baccalaureate exam; the difference is that at the associate (or assistant level), a lower score is required for passing.
Exams at all levels cover certain broad areas like human diversity and professional values and ethics. They cover social work practice appropriate to a particular level. The baccalaureate and master level exams (once called basic and intermediate) are typically taken by new graduates. The advanced generalist and clinical exams are generally taken by social workers who have completed, or are in the process of completing, a period of post-master supervised practice. The advanced generalist covers both macro and micro practice. The clinical exam is intended for professionals who will be doing mental health/ clinical work as part of their professional practice.
In many states, there is one mandated exam at each level of practice. However, there are exceptions. Some states do not require master’s educated nonclinical/ macro social workers to do supervised practice or take a second licensing exam. Some states allow candidates a choice of examinations. A new master’s graduate, for example, may have the option of taking either the master examination or a higher level examination that the graduate will eventual need to take for independent licensing. One advantage to taking the higher level exam is cost – exams run over $200. However, candidates should be aware that a higher level exam will test concepts that are generally not fully developed until the candidate has been in the field for a while.
In some states, applicants for independent licensing – the highest level – may opt for either the clinical or advanced practice exam. In other jurisdictions, the highest level of licensing is tied to passing the clinical exam.
Candidates must get permission from their state licensing agency before testing. Often this means turning in an application packet and all supplemental materials. At this point, candidates can schedule a testing session at their convenience. Those who fail an attempt must wait 90 days before retaking. Some states are more restrictive than others when it comes to how many times a candidate can attempt an exam.
Candidates can find a content outline for each level on the ASWB site. Some chapters of the National Association of Social Workers also provide study resources; there may be workshops or study groups for this purpose.