When Emanuel Wilkerson sat for the exam to become a licensed master social worker, he had nine job offers lined up. All he had to do was pass.
Starting in May, Wilkerson, 24, took the exam three times in four months. He spent his summer studying. He sank at least $1,300 into test preparation and fees. He failed each time ― by 10 points, by six points, and then by a single point.
“This exam leaves you essentially, financially, like broke,” Wilkerson said. “It basically leaves you traumatized from even trying again, and it makes you want to basically leave the field altogether.”
Wilkerson, who is Black, was a standout during his undergraduate career and the first in his family to earn an undergraduate degree.
So, maybe he should be looking at how his college prepared him for the job?
He’s not alone in his struggle. Data released last year by the Association of Social Work Boards, which administers the social work licensing exams that the state of Maryland requires, showed disparities along racial lines that some in the profession say demonstrate the tests’ bias against nonwhite graduates.
In response, Democratic state Sen. Mary Washington of Baltimore introduced legislation Feb. 6 to address the issue.
“We are in a crisis. We need social workers,” Washington said. “There is a national movement to address these disparities and Maryland has an opportunity to be the leader.”
One bill would authorize the State Board of Social Work Examiners to issue temporary licenses to practice social work to applicants who have met all licensure requirements except passing an exam. The second bill would establish a work group under the Maryland Department of Health to identify alternatives to the current tests and develop recommendations on replacing the exam requirement.
The Association of Social Work Boards warned in a statement against eliminating its exams, saying that could have “many real-world consequences that could negatively affect the profession.”
The state of Maryland issues four types of licenses and each requires passing at least one exam. For instance, the requirements to reach the top license — licensed certified social worker-clinical — include a master’s degree, 3,000 hours of supervised social work and two exams. On this path, a “master’s exam” must be passed to get a master social worker license and begin the roughly two years of supervised work. A “clinical exam” is taken after that period to obtain a license to practice without supervision.