Studying for ASWB’s Masters Exam: Overview

I was curious about the social work licensure exams produced by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). One question was, how should a person prepare for these exams? I had already posted some brief remarks on ASWB’s Clinical exam. This post provides a more detailed look at preparation for ASWB’s so-called “Masters” exam, with some critical commentary.

(I did not find an explanation of ASWB’s use of that particular spelling. Without the apostrophe found in phrases like “master’s degree in social work,” it appeared that ASWB intended the plural. People with master’s degrees are not usually called “masters,” however; indeed, in my experience some in social work have claimed that the term carries objectionable connotations. Unless ASWB, an educational testing organization, intends to persist in what appears to be grammatical error, it probably should refer to it as the “Master’s” exam.)

ASWB (2010, p. 4) describes its “Masters” exam as “The examination that is intended for individuals who hold an MSW degree, but who do not have post-degree supervision.” A separate post criticizes the seeming obscurantism preventing ASWB from providing a clearer indication of the purpose of the exam. But the quote does provide the minimal clarification that, except as otherwise indicated by state law, people would typically take the Masters exam after finishing their MSW programs, but before commencing social work practice under the supervision of a professional authorized by state law to provide such supervision, such as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Nature of the Exam

I began by trying to get an overall impression of the Masters exam. ASWB’s About the Exams webpage stated that each ASWB exam would contain 170 multiple-choice questions that candidates would have four hours to complete. Each multiple-choice question would have four possible answers. To answer all 170 questions within those four hours, it would be necessary to answer 43 questions per hour, on average, or about 11 questions every 15 minutes. Of the 170 questions, 20 would be in the testing phase: only 150 answers would count toward the final grade. Candidates would not know whether a given question was being scored or merely being tested for future use.

That webpage further indicated that the exams were administered for ASWB by Pearson VUE in an electronically administered (i.e., computer-based) format. Pearson did not offer a global or nationwide map of its testing locations, but did provide a search tool, also available indirectly through Pearson’s Locate a Test Center webpage. A few experiments with that search tool suggested that there would typically be at least one or two Pearson test centers in most midsize and large cities in the U.S., but that one might have to do substantial traveling from some locations. For example, there appeared to be only three test centers in Kansas (outside of the Kansas City area), two in the western Pacific, and none in Central America.

The Pearson webpage also offered a PDF depiction of the introductory screens and related zoom viewing options that a test-taker would see, upon arriving at a test center and beginning a test. There was, in addition, a webpage introducing a photo tour and a four-minute YouTube video that described what the test-taker would encounter at a test center, what ID s/he should bring, when s/he should arrive, and other exam-related procedures. Another webpage introduced another YouTube video providing further information on what to expect at the test center.

ASWB’s About the Exams webpage offered links to a number of other PDFs and webpages regarding various aspects of the exam. These were of two types. Some dealt with exam-related procedures. Those are discussed in the following paragraphs of this section. Others dealt with the substance of the exam and exam preparation. Those are discussed in the next sections of this post.

In terms of procedures, ASWB’s Testing Accommodations webpage provided brief remarks on disability and English as a Second Language (ESL) accommodations. The Exam Registration webpage noted that, “In most jurisdictions, you will need to establish your eligibility [with your state licensing board] before you register to take the test.” The Exam Registration page also provided a link to the ASWB Exam Blue Book, containing additional details about the exams for the benefit of state licensing personnel. On several webpages, there was also a link to a special page for candidates in Massachusetts. At this writing (in summer 2014), ASWB did not provide the test used in Californiareportedly California would begin using ASWB’s Clinical (not Masters) exam in 2016.

ASWB’s About the Exams webpage also linked to other procedural pages and documents. One was its Exam Development page, which said that the test-taker would typically need to enter correct answers to “between 93 [62%] and 106 [71%]” of the exam’s 150 scored questions to obtain a passing grade. As detailed near the end of another post, the difference between 93 and 106 was due to the fact that some versions of the exam (be it the Masters exam, the Clinical exam, or some other ASWB exam) were easier than others.

Pearson handled ASWB’s statistical calculations regarding exam administrations. (An exam administration was apparently defined as one person taking one test, so five people taking the Masters exam would count as five administrations.) In those calculations, covering thousands of exam administrations, Pearson’s statisticians could see that average scores on one version — of, say, the Masters exam — would be much lower or higher than on others, requiring adjustments up or down to create a statistically leveled playing field among all Masters exam takers.

The difference between 93 and 106 was not due to the scores that states would set as the minimum required to pass. It appeared that Pearson, not the state, would determine who passed. If your state said that you needed a scaled score of 75 to pass, and if your form of the exam required a raw score of 101 out of 150 to pass, evidently Pearson would translate your raw score of 101 out of 150 into a scaled score of 75. But if your state said that you needed a scaled score of only 70 to pass, Pearson would translate your raw score of 101 out of 150 into a scaled score of 70. My own spot checks suggested that states were now tending to just require “a passing score,” without stating a number.

Passing the Exam

While most of this post focuses on the Masters exam, this particular section provides a more general look at pass rates across all ASWB exams. In the separate post mentioned above, I join others who have criticized ASWB for unethical withholding of exam pass rate data. At this writing, ASWB’s Pass Rates webpage provides only the most minimal pass rate information, regarding only the most recent totals, without data from previous years and without breakdowns by state and school, all of which ASWB can calculate and does provide to schools and state licensing authorities, at a price. Another post provides some of the more detailed data that those third parties have disclosed. Here, I offer a table presenting some of those additional data, with further calculations, regarding exams taken in 2013:


This table for 2013 leads to these impressions:

  1. Looking at the bottom line, about 80% (i.e., four out of five) of the 27,699 ASWB first-time test-takers passed their exams.
  2. The vast majority of those people were taking either the Masters or the Clinical exam.
  3. For each exam, pass rates for first-time exam-takers exceeded 75%.
  4. Pass rates for repeat exams averaged 34%. The worst was for the Masters exam, at 31%.
  5. Only 5,557 people failed their first try in 2013, but 8,692 people made a retry in 2013. Apparently a substantial number of retries are by people who have failed in one or more prior years.
  6. Almost one out of every six exam takers had failed at least twice. The rate of repeated failures was slightly worse for Clinical exam takers, and somewhat better for Bachelors exam takers.

That last point seemed to indicate that thousands of people were completing their social work educations, and graduating, but that all their hard work was not resulting in a social work license. As with so many things, ASWB declined to say how many test-takers have never passed. Given the expense, effort, discouragement, and declining odds accompanying two or more failures, however, it seems that roughly 5,000 social work graduates per year will never pass the exam in question.

It seemed odd that such a large majority of those who failed the exam once would go on to fail again, and perhaps again. For instance, as a point of comparison, a search yielded a study finding that, of those who failed the New York bar exam in July 2005, and who signed up to retake that exam at its next administration in February 2006, 57% passed. Regrettably, a similar search did not turn up comparable research on those who failed and retook exams in this helping profession.

Among those who fail an exam, those who don’t give up — who want to pass badly enough to pay another $250 or so (plus unknown amounts on study materials and tutoring, plus untold amounts of time) would seem likely to get serious, do a better job of studying, and get it over with on their second try. The large disparity in second-try pass rates, between those bar exam retakers and the ASWB exam retaker data summarized in the table (above), raised a question of whether Masters exam retakers might be struggling against barriers not facing takers of the New York bar exam.

It was interesting, in that regard, to consider (a) Thyer’s (2011, p. 299) discovery that Florida’s MSWs had below-average pass rates on ASWB’s Clinical exam, and (b) the high proportion of minorities within Florida’s population. I wondered, that is, whether ASWB’s highly questionable exam preparation scheme results in dubious questions that discriminate against minorities and/or other disadvantaged persons. It did seem reasonable to wonder whether disadvantaged individuals comprise a disproportionate share of those who fail one or more times. The possibility of a far-reaching hoax in the design of ASWB exams could explain ASWB’s refusal to publicize details about the people (including minorities) who take its exams.

What the Exam Covers

It seemed strange that ASWB was not offering to sell me the kind of book that you would normally get from the producer of a standardized exam. For instance, people taking the Praxis exams offered by Educational Testing Services (ETS) in order to pass the teachers’ license would find, on the ETS website, a set of test prep books and services that offered test-taking strategies, practice questions and explanations, study topics, and discussions of specific content being tested. Those offerings included, for $26, a 513-page eBook with hundreds of practice questions, three full-length practice exams, and other materials.

Moreover — unlike the situation with standardized exams like the SAT and the GRE — large third-party test-prep companies (e.g., Kaplan, Princeton Review) were not jumping into this vacuum with thick volumes crammed with substantive knowledge, test-taking tips, and sample exams, variously critiqued and recommended by dozens if not hundreds of users. The options for the ASWB Masters exam were not even close to that. Only two of the ASWB Masters exam books that I found on Amazon had more than ten reviews; only one of those two had at least a four- (out of five) star rating; and that one dated from 2009, which would presumably render it unreliable as an indicator of current test content and format.

As an alternative, I ran a general Google search and opened the first 25 links it provided. This gave me a number of offerings. I discarded webpages that were not really helpful for a general-purpose search for ASWB Masters exam study materials. An example: a webpage from the Syracuse University Libraries, indicating which study guides they had on hand. Also, for the time being, I set aside webpages offering tips, guidance, general information, and links to assorted resources. Those are discussed in the next section (below). With those exclusions, here is my recap of the commercial offerings appearing in that Google search:

  • Study guides and practice exams from Social Work Guide. These included The Complete Guide to Social Work – Masters Exam (2009, 4th ed.) ($130), The Strategic Guide to the ASWB Exam: Mastering Multiple Choice ($80), and an Interactive ASWB Practice Exam ($70), or all three for $250. The Complete Guide received an average of four stars from 22 reviewers at Amazon. One must always be concerned, in such settings, that positive reviews might be posted by the writer/manufacturer, and that negative reviews might be posted by his/her/its competitors. In a critical vein, one reviewer said, “Although the study guide presented a variety of in-depth information, much of it was not on the exam.” Another said, “It offers a good overview of the exam but, I wished it had offered more depth in certain areas especially [in] the theories of learning and development.” A third: “This book is truly not needed. All you need to do is purchase the study guide straight from the registration website and study that for a few days.” (Not sure which study guide that person was referring to.) Another: “The only problem was that the section in the book pertaining to program evaluation was not detailed. Although it was difficult for me to answer the question on the LMSW exam that pertained to program evaluation (about 10 questions), I was still able to achieve a passing score. I WOULD STRONGLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK!” Another: “I found the material and more importantly the practice exam wording in the book outdated and not at all as useful as the Academic Review series I had gotten on my own.” Finally, “Contains grammatical errors as well as a few factual errors . . . . There are a number of places throughout the text where there is clear evidence of bias.” Most of those were fairly recent reviews. I did not investigate this merchant’s practice exams, as it would make little sense to buy theirs for $70 when I could get one straight from ASWB for $85.
  • Academic Review offered its four Social Work Study Volumes – Masters Level ($129, available on Amazon Kindle for $109; note that Kindle also has a PC app for those who want to read on their computer instead of on a Kindle device). As their title suggested, these appeared to be books on substantive social work topics, along with some “study strategies and test-taking tips.” A search did not yield much commentary on these books, at Amazon or otherwise. The outline of topics covered in these volumes generally matched that provided in ASWB’s Candidate Handbook (2014, p. 16), at least down to the chapter level. Academic Review also offered sets of online QuizCards and Flash Cards ($89 each). (I had examined general-purpose flashcard programs in a separate post.)
  • offered subscriptions ranging from one day ($35) to 180 days ($440). These subscriptions provided “unlimited access to thousands of test questions,” as well as full-length practice exams, “comprehensive and detailed case studies” (for what purpose, I was not sure), flash cards, podcasts, test-taking strategies, inspirational videos, and more.
  • Mometrix Test Preparation offered its Social Work Exam Secrets Study Guide ($54) with practice test questions. This book, with yellow and black coloring very reminiscent of the Dummies series, promised to be “unlike any other” SW test study guide. This volume went for $52 on Amazon, where it averaged four out of five stars from seven reviewers. More precisely, those seven had split five and two, giving it five stars or one star, respectively. Several of the former looked like they might have been planted by the company. Then again, the one-star reviews said virtually nothing. The suspicion of planted reviews grew when I observed that the person behind Mometrix seemed to have other sites out there, driving searchers back to his website. These included an ASWB Secrets teaser video, sharing one exam trick that might be useful if it was true, as well as separate Study Guide Zone and Test Prep Review websites.
  • LEAP (Licensing Exam Preparation Services) claimed pass rates ranging from 94% to 99%, “depending on products used & exam level.” They said they updated their products “at least once per year.” At the Masters level, they claimed “the highest pass rates in the industry.” Their offerings ranged from practice exams and study guides to audio courses and live classes, at prices ranging from $59 to $285; possibly their pass-rate claims pertained only to those who signed up for classes. Then again, the live classes appeared to be in development, which I guessed meant that not enough people had signed up. Their audio course consisted of a half-dozen CDs, apparently containing an hour of instruction each.
  • Social Work Test Prep appeared to offer online practice exams ($35) and some unspecified way to “harness free resources on the web to boost your studying power and save you money.” One of their links led to their own “bookstore” on Amazon’s website, offering an assortment of books directly and indirectly related to the exam.
  • Social Work Exam Zone offered study guides, flashcards, and practice questions. I curtailed my investigation of this site when I saw that its front page said that ASWB’s exams cost $175 and were administered by ACT Inc. Those things had not been true for several years.
  • Association for Advanced Training in the Behavioral Sciences offered a ludicrously pretentious name and various study materials and packages ranging from $95 to $425. At the top end, the Masters Combo Study Package ($425) offered five books, four mock exams, an online workshop, exam readiness lectures, an expert phone consultation, and a money-back guarantee.

Again, this was just an introductory sampling of materials appearing in my Google search. There appeared to be a large number of third-party ASWB exam prep material vendors.

One reaction, from this review, was that ASWB seemed to be leaving a lot of people in the dark, stumbling around in search of guidance. Some of that guidance may have been very helpful; some may have been predatory. There was, unfortunately, no obvious way to tell — no consumer protection agency, no Yelp! ratings and few Amazon reviews. It seemed to be a matter of paying your money and taking your chances. Here, again, there would be a question of whether some who failed ASWB exams were victims rather than slouches.

Sources of Tips, Feedback, and Other Resources

In addition to the foregoing list of commercial test prep sites oriented specifically toward the ASWB Masters exam, the Google search described in the previous section (above) led to a variety of tips, freebies, and other stuff:

  • In a previous post, I had introduced the social worker forum. Now, inspired by a thread in which one test-taker sought advice after failing the LMSW exam three times, I decided to run a search focused on that forum. Unfortunately, that search did not turn up much. However, a generic version of that search, not focused on the forum, turned up tons of material.
  • Generic test-taking advice. A search led to several million webpages offering something related to the art of scoring well on multiple-choice exams. I had seen a book to that effect on Amazon, and its page contained links to other similar books. But none seemed to have many reviews. I tried again with several other Google searches. It appeared that well-designed, oft-reviewed books on test-taking strategies tended to be oriented toward multiple choice exams in a particular subject (e.g., neurology). I found a few offering a more general orientation to multiple choice exams, but as far as I could tell from the limited online preview, even the best of these seemed to have little value for my purposes, not completely bowling me over with things I had never heard or noticed before.
  • Blogs (and the like) targeted on the ASWB exams, and particularly the Masters exam. These, offering comments and links, included Pass the ASWB Exam, the ASWB Social Work License Exam Pinterest page, a post on the Social Work Career Development blog, the Social Work Professional blog (which I initially dismissed due to odd writing, but reconsidered as I continued to browse), and a post on passing the Masters exam four years after graduation.

There was surely some useful generic test-taking strategy guidance in some of those sources. I found, however, that at this point I was somewhat overwhelmed. There seemed to be an enormous variety of sources out there, and not many reliable indicators of which would be helpful.


My purpose would not be to explore endless sources of information on how to pass the Masters exam. Nor would it be to pay lots of money to people who might not do anything that I could do without them. My purpose would be, rather, to identify specific test preparation needs, if I could, and select materials that would help me address those needs.

While glancing through the commercial materials, I decided that expensive prep services would be a fallback, possibly a last-ditch option, after I had failed the exam once or twice. There were no guarantees that they would help at all. If they did help, there were no guarantees that they would help any more than other, much less expensive options.

I was not eager to buy, or even to use, materials from sources other than ASWB. In preparing for the GRE, I had seen instances in which some third-party materials were simply wrong, and other instances when they seemed misguided. I didn’t want to learn someone else’s way of thinking. I wanted to learn ASWB’s way of thinking, if there was one.

That seemed to call for purchase of an ASWB practice exam for $85. It did appear advisable to have at least one run through a genuine sample test, so as to get myself mentally prepared to sit there and do it. While the practice exam would apparently allow the test-taker to pause and resume, I felt that I probably should not do that, but should rather try to make my trial conditions as much as possible like those of the actual exam.

For reasons detailed in another post, the available information suggested that not even ASWB could assemble an intelligible indication of a manageable number of subjects to be tested. The purpose of buying an ASWB practice exam would not be to obtain an outline of such subjects. It would merely provide an advance encounter with the testing environment.

These conclusions left me with an unsettled feeling — appropriately so, given the semi-chaotic structure of the exam, and of the environment in which it was developed. It was disconcerting that neither Kaplan nor Barron’s nor Princeton Review nor anyone else — not even ASWB — had come up with a solid, widely recognized study guide. Based on research reported in other posts, and in this review of the available materials, it seemed quite possible that the best way to prepare for the ASWB Masters exam was to hang around with social workers, so as to absorb their ways of thinking — or, better yet, to get a job at ASWB.

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  • Alex Jerry Walsh  On March 1, 2018 at 4:14 PM

    Great article, the test is really a scam, a money maker for Pearson. Passed it on my third try. Wasted money on two study programs. Knew many good LLMSW’s who gave up after spending money on the test and study material. Study material from University of Michigan stated no reliability or repeatability to test. Most of the questions usually came down to two questions where either one could be correct. In actual situations you usually know what to do. This test is completely unfair and ASWB should be ashamed of it. It has hurt many people who just want to help. Who is making the money off of this?

  • Griselda Foreman  On February 17, 2017 at 4:06 AM

    my business partner was needing LA LCSW-BACS recently and located a document management site that has a searchable forms database . If you need LA LCSW-BACS as well , here’s a

  • Gemini  On December 18, 2015 at 4:46 PM

    Wonderful and true synopsis. I am going to sit for the Clinical exam next month and ASWB has not been able to provide me with a study guide. It has been discouraging!

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