ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – For the first time ever, newly released data is giving a clear look at who passes the test to become a social worker. The numbers show large racial disparities in New Mexico, and some say that’s hurting communities.
If you want to become a social worker, you need to be licensed. In New Mexico, as across the country, part of that licensure process involves passing the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) exam. There are multiple levels of the exam relating to different levels of education but across those exam levels, minorities score far lower than white test takers in New Mexico.
“This means that people can’t get jobs at behavioral health organizations in New Mexico because they don’t have licensure,” says Alexandria Taylor, a social worker in New Mexico. “People were literally being kept out of economic opportunity and being able to secure jobs.”
Over the last decade, 82.4% of white test takers in New Mexico have passed the highest-level exam on the first try. But only 38.3% of Native American test takers in New Mexico passed on first try, the recently released data shows. Only 63.4% of Black test takers pass on the first try in New Mexico.
Taylor calls this “gatekeeping.” While speaking with KRQE News 13, she wanted to make it clear that this is her personal opinion – not an official stance from her employer or associations. But she believes the exam appears to be biased towards non-minorities, creating a racial disparity in who gets to help their community and practice social work.
“Social work is a part of folks’ daily lives. And it impacts so many areas of our world and our existence,” she says. “Specifically in New Mexico, we’ve been seeing for years and years and years what a behavioral health crisis we have.”
“I’m saying: As a social worker, as a Black woman, which is central to my identity as a social worker, that I shouldn’t have to act like an upper middle-class white person in order to pass the licensing exam that allows me to serve the communities I want to serve in New Mexico.”
Taylor isn’t the only one who feels this way. A Change.org petition calling to end the exams altogether has already garnered thousands of supporters from across the nation.
KRQE News 13 reached out to the ASWB, which administers the exams. In an email, they say they’re aware of the petition. And they say they’re evaluating the exam development process.
“ASWB is currently conducting additional research to evaluate all aspects of the licensure exam process and working with other social work leaders in the field on next steps,” says Lavina G. Harless, the senior director of examination services. “This will help ensure the exam reflects the realities of social work practice and that exam preparation is more accessible.”
Harless says ASWB is exploring options to offer repeat test takers. Harless didn’t specify what those options include, but the petition against ASWB is calling for refunds for people who have had to take the test multiple times in order to pass.
“When ASWB says 55% of test takers who are racialized as Black don’t pass the first time, that means people are paying $230 to take that again and again,” explains Taylor. That can really add up.
While the online petition calls to end the tests, ASWB hasn’t indicated that they’ll cancel exams. Instead, they say they’re undertaking five key initiatives to increase accessibility, including bringing diverse voices into the exam-making process, holding community input sessions, and providing free resources to help test takers better prepare for the exam.
New Mexico relies on ASWB exams for its state licensure process. KRQE News 13 reached out to the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department to ask if they were aware of the petition. We have not heard a response.
Taylor says that she knows it’s not likely that everyone will want to overhaul the entire testing and licensure system. But she says removing barriers could help fill the need for social workers in communities across New Mexico.