Defending systemic racism nothing new but we don’t have to accept it — A Response to the Association of Social Work Boards and John McWhorter

Cassie from I-CCH
7 min readSep 13, 2022

by Cassandra Walker LCSW, Shimon Cohen, LCSW, Jen Hirsch, and Alex Remy, LCSW on behalf of #StopASWB

In a New York Times Op-Ed published August 27th, 2022 , columnist John McWhorter criticized the efforts of the #StopASWB campaign and petition, stating that “lower Black and Latino pass rates don’t make a test racist.” Although McWhorter repeatedly references the #StopASWB petition —a petition that highlights that the Association of Social Work Boards’ exams are disproportionately based on feedback from white social workers, unfairly penalize social workers who practice in other languages, require financial resources for success, and utilize standardized testing that is foundationally rooted in white supremacy — he expresses confusion about how a test design could be discriminatory.

McWhorter’s confusion is not dissimilar from ASWB’s response to their data release on August 5th, 2022, which revealed a first-time pass rate difference of nearly 20–40% in favor of white test-takers. ASWB denied having this pass rate demographic data for over a decade, and refused to share what they did collect. When ASWB finally released the pass rate data, they attempted to deflect blame onto test-takers rather than taking accountability for their flawed test design, citing individual and cultural issues instead. McWhorter does the same and, in their August 31st, 2022, statement, ASWB doubled down on their “everyone and everything else but our test stance.”

These statements represent consistent bad faith arguments against changing policies and practices away from those which systematically harm and exclude people who are not racialized as white. This is not a new practice and is not bounded by race, but by an insistence on an ahistorical ideal that standardized testing and systems in general are not–and cannot be–biased enough to have greater influence than individual merit.

The claim that we don’t “prove” that–or how–the test is racist is a diversion tactic which ignores the 17 citations in a petition which is just over 1500 words. It ignores the over 40 years of research and knowledge both in and outside of the social work field, some of which is directly cited in our petition, which does just what Mr. McWhorter and others ask, which is to explain how the test is biased. Given that ASWB refuses to share test contents or raw data, in addition to having lied about having the pass rate demographic data prior to its August 2022 report, our citations and the larger body of research and critique sufficiently show that racial and age biases exist. Furthermore, there are articles, analyses, and the ASWB’s own stated policies which specifically denote the failure of ASWB to follow field standards for testing for and measuring biases in professional exams.

Regardless, it is interesting that the onus is once again being placed on the people being systemically discriminated against to prove racial biases, even after the reveal of pass rate disparities of 20–50+%, depending on demographic and test. Shouldn’t it be the ASWB and its partners to prove how this test is not racist and otherwise harmful? Why do they receive the benefit of the doubt here, when their tests have never been validated nor shown to correlate to social work competence? Is it not the standard of helping and medical professions to first do no harm? Knowing the issues with standardized testing and the field standards, why has it been ASWB policy, since inception, not to monitor demographic pass rates? Shouldn’t they have wanted to know if there was an issue with the test? Shouldn’t they have been following the ethics and best practices of the social work profession?

Despite directly citing the history of racism which is the bedrock for the creation of standardized testing, the McWhorter article and many ASWB supporters turn away and ignore the history, research, stories of personal experience, and the similar struggles in other fields in favor of a sensationalist strawman: “Is it really wrong to use a test to evaluate someone’s qualifications to be a social worker?” And its twin “Do you really want an unregulated profession?”

These two questions are not what we are talking about. The general idea of “can we test” is purposefully obtuse. In fact, just as obtuse as expecting a petition to be a research article and meta-analysis. Our petition did cite and link many additional readings to support our points, which our detractors are clearly not reading. Additionally, the tests are not the entire licensing process. Entangling the exam and the whole of licensing is a tactic to make the exams seem indispensable and more important than they are or need to be.

The ASWB tests are racist because the information on the test is from an exclusively white upper-middle class perspective that does not apply to actual practice and does not properly represent the diversity of practice and knowledge. There is not a single question in those tests around Afrocentric theory or practice, nor even one of the Black founders of organized social work like Ida B. Wells. There are no questions which require knowledge around Indigenous ways of practice or knowing, nor any nuance around the impacts of relying on policies and practices where the “standard” has become code for white. That is systemic racism.

In fact, based on past precedent the disparate pass rates alone would likely render them illegal if they were directly used for hiring. Being one step removed from the hiring process, the ASWB and their tests have avoided similar scrutiny, until now. In fact, upon release of the data showing these race and age related discrepancies in pass rates the national accreditation body, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), has now removed the ASWB licensure exam pass rates as an option for social work education programs to meet accreditation requirements.

The ASWB has ignored the very standards they cite as best practices and lied about following them. The Educational Standards for Education and Psychological Testing require both differential item functioning analysis, which ASWB claims to do AND differential test functioning analysis, which by its own policy decision, ASWB has never done. That is at best horrific, willful negligence or worse, and more likely, decades of known deception and purposely burying heads in the sand in order to attempt to get away with discrimination on an international level while growing profits and power.

The exams many of us took included outdated language about various groups including Trans people and unnecessary stereotypes of Black and Latine people. Further, when studying for the test, you receive advice that cultural information is largely a distraction to slow one down and should be ignored. This is not just a confusing double standard in a field which has already shown in practice and research that culture is a vital aspect of effective and ethical practice, but also a codification of colorblind racism in a test which is used to gatekeep employment and opportunity.

Unlike what ASWB supporters claim, this is not about individuals, and it certainly is not about a “culture lagging a bit”. That is an insult and cultural racism. It is also deeply insulting for someone to use a book from 1983 (which again has its own white supremacist roots, try Amos Wilson for better older work on child development) to suggest that college, masters, and doctoral level professionals can’t perform recall for a test due to race. Again, this all requires the implicit assumption that white ways of knowing are better and more deserving over others. This is white supremacy in practice and is part of a larger epistemicide, which many social workers try to correct in our work. There are more ways to educate, learn, and know than those ways only deemed worthy and beneficial by Euro-American white supremacy.

The ASWB’s hyperfocus on their reputation and maintaining their power in the field over the wellbeing and best interest of social workers and the wider public is institutional betrayal. Further their most recent statement which attempts to portray those speaking out as ill-informed aggressors, blame everything and everyone but themselves and their test, is institutional DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim & Offender).

It is also worth noting that no group is a monolith and the use of a few tokenized members of a racial or other identity group to maintain policies which are racist and harmful may not be new but is shameful. When ASWB looks at these the pass rate numbers and exempts their test from being part of the systemic oppression and trauma to which Black and other social workers of color are disproportionately subjected during their licensure journey, it is a bold public dereliction of duty, and using those of us who beat the test to do so is unacceptable. A new Black face on the top of a statement cannot erase over 40 years of institutional racism. Especially when the tests in question are still in use and the problems inherent in the test and way the tests are created and analyzed are still being denied.

IF we test, wouldn’t we want a test which accounts for actual practice, diverse epistemologies, and ethics? The ASWB tests, and many in the other fields, which people are also fighting, do not account for this, and instead test one’s ability to answer questions with answers that in real life would get the test taker or a member of the public harmed or killed. As social workers, we already have accredited degrees, internships, supervision, and continuing education. We are not talking about tests which are used with anyone; we are talking about tests that result in people with more experience doing worse, and that always come after multiple other forms of assessment. These other assessments tend to be more reliable measures of knowledge and ethics, such as graduation from accredited social work programs, and the previously mentioned supervision post-graduation.

From “but how is a test racist” to “but public safety”, ASWB and their supporters continue to ignore the facts and literature in favor of a racist test which has been embroiled in debate and shown to have deep biases since its inception. ASWB lied about having this data for at least 10 years and did nothing to address these issues. Racist is not crude labeling; it is the most generous and professional way to accurately describe how a powerful organization has been profiting by needlessly gatekeeping a profession at a time where it is desperately understaffed and needed.



Cassie from I-CCH

Cassie is a Black Queer therapist and owner of the Woke Mental Wellness podcast and Intersections Center for Complex Healing, PLLC.