Maryland Senate committee approves temporarily waiving national exam for nonclinical social workers

A Maryland Senate committee voted Friday to pass legislation that would temporarily waive the national exam requirement for nonclinical social workers under certain circumstances.

The bills were passed partially in an attempt to address the social worker shortage and racial disparities in passing rates for the national exams administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. With a favorable Finance Committee report, the bills will head to the full Senate for a second reading.


“It’s really going to improve the workforce situation in Maryland when it comes to social workers,” said Sen. Mary Washington, who sponsored one of the bills and represents parts of Baltimore City and County. “So many communities need them and there are a lot of people who are ready to work who are now going to be able to.”

The state of Maryland issues four types of licenses, each of which requires passing at least one exam administered by the ASWB in addition to varying levels of education and hours of supervised social work. In August, ASWB released data that demonstrated disparities along racial lines that some say indicated bias against nonwhite test takers. For example, between 2011 and 2021 in Maryland, the first-time pass rates for white and Black test takers were 93% and 56%, respectively.


Sen. Chris West, who represents parts of Baltimore and Carroll counties, introduced Senate Bill 145, which passed unanimously. The bill authorizes the State Board of Social Worker Examiners to grant temporary licenses to candidates looking to practice bachelor’s or master’s level social work who have not passed an exam because it was unavailable for at least seven business days. After administered, the license would be valid until 180 days after an exam becomes readily available. With that license, social workers could only practice under the supervision of a board-approved supervisor, according to the bill.

Sen. Melony Griffith, who chairs the Finance Committee and represents Prince George’s County, said in the past, cyber issues and the coronavirus pandemic have resulted in the exam being unavailable. Since social workers need licenses to practice, the conditional license would grant them the ability to do so if they’ve met all other licensure criteria besides passing their test.

Griffith introduced an amendment to the bill, which passed, that tie in temporary licenses proposed by Washington in Senate Bill 872, which did not receive its own vote Friday. Candidates looking to practice bachelor’s or master’s social work would be able to obtain a temporary license if they’ve met all licensure requirements besides passing an ASWB exam. The temporary license would expire if a candidate receives a permanent license or after two years, with narrow exceptions for renewal.

Washington’s bill estimates that approximately 400 candidates would seek temporary licenses annually. However, the approved legislation does not permit temporary licenses for those looking to practice unsupervised clinical social work.

That leaves out social workers like Philicia Ross, who is a licensed master social worker waiting to sit for her clinical exam. Ross is a member of Social Workers for Equity and Anti-Racism, which rallied around Washington’s legislation. Ross said while SWEAR thinks the legislation is a good first step, the amendments left a lot to be desired.

Sen. Mary Washington presents legislation she introduced regarding temporarily pausing national social work licensing exams and issuing temporary licenses to work. Her bills follow a data release last year that demonstrated potential bias against non-white social work candidates taking licensing exams.

“Anything that upholds any aspect of the invalid, discriminatory, biased, racist, ageist, ableist, classist exams … anything that upholds that is not good enough for us,” Ross said. “We formed specifically to eliminate the harmful testing practices of the ASWB and that did not get accomplished today with that vote, but that’s OK.”

Griffith said the amended version of the bill is a “good short-term solution to build a long-term plan as a result of the information that was brought to light late last year.”

The approved legislation ties in with an approved, amended version of Washington’s other bill, Senate Bill 871. The bill passed unanimously with one absence, according to the official report. Originally, the bill included a moratorium on all ASWB exams in the state until June 30, 2024.


The committee struck that portion of the bill but upheld its call for a work group under the Maryland Department of Health that would form to identify alternatives to exam requirements for those looking to obtain a social work license.

An amendment to the bill requires that the Board of Social Work Examiners notify applicants within 10 days of receipt of their application whether their application is complete or not to avoid large delays.

In a hearing March 10, support for Washington’s bills outweighed opposition. While the work group received nearly universal support, several took issue with the temporary licenses, including the state Board of Social Work Examiners and the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Chase Cook, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Health, said that because the legislation was heavily amended since the board submitted written testimony, it is “reviewing the changes to the legislation and plans to restate or update its position accordingly when given the opportunity.”

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Opponents said issuing temporary licenses would create a “two-tiered” licensing system distinguishing between those who were licensed by passing an exam and those who did not.

Washington introduced an amendment to the legislation ahead of the March 10 hearing that prohibits employers from discriminating against potential employees based on them having a temporary versus a permanent license. Additionally, some pointed out that when Maryland started licensing social workers in 1975, then-social workers were “grandfathered in” under the legislation.


“We have currently practicing social workers and people who are heading programs in this state who have never taken the licensing exam,” Anna McPhatter, dean of the School of Social Work at Morgan State University, said at the March 10 hearing.

Opponents also cautioned that removing the exam requirement, even temporarily, would disqualify Maryland from participating in the Social Work Licensure Compact.

The compact is being developed by the Council of State Governments, the Department of Defense, the Clinical Social Work Association, ASWB and NASW. Under the compact, social workers from involved states could apply for a multistate license. If they qualify for a license in the state they live in, they could then practice social work in any compact state with that singular license.

According to guidelines published online, participating states would need to require that applicants pass a qualifying national exam. Currently, the ASWB exams are the only ones that meet that criteria. The Council of State Governments did not return a request for comment.

“We didn’t get it for everybody, but there are still some people who are coming out on top,” Ross said. “We’re in a mental health crisis, we’re in a public health crisis, missing out on social workers who directly reflect the needs of the communities that need help.”