Monday, February 13, 2023

Eliminating the ASWB exam from the Illinois LSW law: Interview with Joel Rubin, MSW, LSW, ACSW, CAE

[Episode 133] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is an interview with Joel L. Rubin, MSW, LSW, ACSW, CAE about the legislative process that NASW-IL went through to eliminate the requirement that BSW and MSW graduates from accredited social work programs in Illinois had to take the ASWB licensing exam in order to get their LSW. 

Joel has served as the Executive Director of the 5,000 member Illinois Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) since October of 1999. 

He shares the story about how and why the legislation changed. We talked about how the legislative process works, from connecting with other social workers online about pressing issues, to reaching out to NASW staff and volunteer board members, supporting prospective legislative candidates, meeting with your elected officials and how NASW state chapters serve as a resource for social workers and legislators.

Download MP3 [27:33]


Jonathan Singer: Hey there podcast listeners, Jonathan here. Today’s episode is about how a bill becomes a law. It is about how States regulate social workers. About how social work organizations gatekeep who gets in and who is kept out. It is the story of how the ASWB was written out of Illinois law for basic social work licensure. Now, this story makes a little more sense with some context. On February 3, 2023 the National Association of Social Workers put out a press release ( saying that they opposed, “the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) social work licensing exams after a review of ASWB data shows significant disparities in pass rates for prospective social workers of color, older adults, and those who speak English as a second language.”
Now, one of the implications of the largest social work organizations in the world saying NO to the ASWB exam is that they had to take a stand on something that social workers have long wanted – the ability to provide protected services across state lines. Dozens of other regulated professions like psychology and nursing are able to practice across state lines. The desire for an interstate compact intensified during the pandemic when most social workers and many clients discovered online mental health services. Now, the press release said that “NASW is prepared to oppose the Social Work Interstate Compact Legislation being developed by the Council of State Governments (CSG) if the bill is not substantially improved, including the removal of provisions which codify the ASWB exams. NASW is eager to work with CSG to develop multi-state social work practice legislation.”
So, does this mean that NASW is against licensure exams? No. Does it mean that NASW is against interstate compacts? No. What it means is that the current ASWB social work licensure exam basic licensure has some real problems. And those problems were exemplified in the pass rate data that ASWB released in August 2022. ASWB released those data after years of organizations like the National Association of Deans and Directors, NASW national and state chapters, and individuals such as Matt DeCarlo and others publicly requested ASWB release their pass rate data. After the ASWB pass rate data were released, several social workers authored a petition called, ASWB: End Discriminatory Social Work Licensing Exams.

The petition was authored by Tay D. Robinson, DSW, CSW; Charla Yearwood, LCSW; Shimon Cohen, LCSW; Alex Remy, LCSW; Brit Holmberg, LCSW; Jen Hirsch, LMSW, APHSW-C; Matt DeCarlo, PhD, MSW; Gerald Joseph, MSW, ACM, CTP; Kim Young, LCSW; Cassandra Walker, LCSW CCTP; Sierra M. Wetmore, MSW; Bethany Matson, MSW. As of February 12, 2023 10,147 people had signed it. 

In today's episode. I was able to talk to Joel Rubin, President of NASW Illinois. Because what they did in Illinois was really interesting. They advocated for the ASWB exam to be eliminated for basic licensure in Illinois for social workers who graduated with bachelor’s or masters degrees from accredited schools of social work. Now, it's important for you to know when you're listening to this episode that there are some people who are opposed to licensure and regulation of social workers period. 

Comer & Bell's Encyclopedia of Social Work entry on ASWB notes that regulation of social workers to protect citizens from harm while receiving services from professionals extends back to 1934, when Puerto Rico passed the first statute regulating social work. California passed social work practice regulation in 1945. By 1992, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands passed social work regulation. Comer & Bell noted that opponents of regulation saw it as "elitist, exclusionary, discriminatory in requirements, restrictive to the available workforce, cumbersome, expensive, and duplicative (Bibus & Boutté-Queen, 2011; CSWE, 2018; Garcia, 1990). Macro practitioners involved with community organizing, planning, and administration have criticized licensure and regulation as favoring clinical practice over macro practice (CSWE, 2018; Donaldson, Fogel, Hill, Erickson, & Ferguson, 2016; Donaldson, Hill, Ferguson, Fogel, & Erickson, 2014; Hill, Fogel, Donaldson, & Erickson, 2017)." "The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), founded in 1968, immediately registered opposition to social work licensure because it would establish “an elitist hierarchy within the profession.” Licensure would exclude paraprofessionals and baccalaureate social workers employed in community and indigenous programs, who understood and practiced with cultural competence. To learn more about the NABSW, check out Episode 38 of Doin' the Work podcast where Shimon Cohen interviews Mr. Garland Jaggers & Dr. Denise McLane-Davison.

This episode does not argue against licensure. It argues against requiring an graduates of accredited social work programs taking a flawed exam to be licensed in Illinois. This is also different from being a license clinical social worker. In Illinois, the clinical ASWB exam is still required for the clinical licensure.
What does it mean for social workers who graduate from accredited BSW and MSW programs to become licensed social workers without having to take an exam? What does it mean for the general public? Why and how was a bill that eliminated the ASWB master's level exam as a requirement for licensure in Illinois able to move from an idea to signed legislation in a single legislative session?
So, sit back and enjoy the story of how Illinois got rid of the ASWB exam for basic social work licensure. And along the way, you're going to learn a little bit about how a bill becomes a law. And if in this moment, you are thinking of that Schoolhouse Rock cartoon from 1976, then you're my kind of people. I was six that thing came out. And it forever changed the way i understood the rough and tumble process of getting an idea to become a bill to become signed legislation. And Joel’s story is going to talk a little bit about that. About how the legislative process works, from connecting with other social workers online about pressing issues, to reaching out to NASW staff and volunteer board members, supporting prospective legislative candidates, meeting with your elected officials and how NASW state chapters serve as a resource for social workers and legislators.
And so, without further ado, on to episode 133 of the Social Work Podcast: Eliminating the ASWB exam from the Illinois LSW law: An interview with Joel Rubin.
Jonathan Singer: Joel, thanks so much for being here today on the Social Work podcast. What's the story behind NASW Illinois advocating to eliminate the ASWB exam for Master's level licensure?

Joel Rubin: It's quite a story, Jonathan. First of all, thank you for having me on the podcast today. So I think to put it all in perspective, I'm going to go back a couple of years. And so this is basically in the fall of 2020. The association of Social Work Boards ASWB informed Illinois that the state was out of compliance with their testing standards and that bachelor's level social workers BSWS would soon no longer be able to be eligible to take the exam required for the LSW.

Okay? Both here in Illinois. In Illinois, the LSW exam is for BSWS with the proper supervision and MSW, it's non clinical level licensure. So that basically left the state with two options. And the first of these options was that we could have created a new BSW license that utilized the ASWB bachelor's exam. Now, that new license would have had a smaller scope of practice than the current LSW, basically upending existing bachelor's level Lsws.

The chapter in NASW Illinois opposed this action. A second option was that the state could stop licensing BSWS altogether, which effectively would make Illinois an MSW only profession. And we also post that option now. So we looked at these options, we were faced with these options, and we began to ask ourselves this following question is the ASWB exam absolutely necessary for LSW licensure? Now, that's a significant leap, a very, very significant leap that perhaps was asked in the past, but we decided to ask it, and we basically started to really inquire about what would that entail.

And so when we looked at that, we started to look at several states, including California, that don't require the ASWB exam for basic licensure. So in addition to that, in discussions with our Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, IDFPR, they indicated that data showed that this population, meaning basic licensed social workers with the non clinical level of licensure, posed very little risk to the public.

And that rigorous pre and post graduation supervision requirements, coupled with existing Illinois requirements of the words that and we all know this, that all LSWs that engage in clinical social work have to be working under the auspices and control of an LCSW. So this really created an environment where additional testing became unnecessary. So when we sort of it was sort of this AHA moment. This is coupled with the fact that for many years, both NASW Illinois and NASW on a national level and other stakeholders across the country had repeatedly requested that data be released from ASWB, because we began, and we've heard for years, or this, ancillary evidence that the ASWB test disproportionately harms social workers based on minority demographics. So this was sort of the background. Now, mind you, this was before, this past summer when ASWB released their initial data on first time test taker.

Jonathan Singer: So that was summer of 2022 when ASWB released the data that people have been asking for for a long time. And it created this firestorm where people were like, AHA, the proof is in the pudding. You're releasing your own data and you're showing that pass rates for white test takers are in some cases double that of black test takers.

Joel Rubin: Correct. And we break that down. In Illinois, it was broken down. So this was proof that this was a significant, challenging situation. So put this all together. We felt that the state would be better off by actually removing the ASWB test for the LSW level of licensure, because it would continue to serve as a burden to access for many, many social workers in the state. Now, we had heard over the years from people all the time, I've tried to take not the clinical level licensure, but just the LSW level of licensure.

I've tried 1,  2,  3,  4 times to pass the test, and then people just give up. And that has such an impact on all kinds of things. It has impact on social workers not being regulated. It has impact on someone's career path and also making sure that we have a more diverse workforce, workforce here in the state of Illinois.

Jonathan Singer: So it sounds like NASW Illinois for a long time had been concerned about the ASWB exam, hearing from folks in the field who had gone through accredited schools of social work, had passed and then not been able to pass the licensure exam. And then there was this kind of ironically pressure from ASWB to do something different. And NASW Illinois decided, well, we're going to essentially think outside the box and say, maybe we don't need this. So how did you move from NASW Illinois saying, we want there to be a change to actually having this be legislation that ended up being signed?

Joel Rubin: So, as I said earlier, after many discussions with IDFPR and IDFPR, noting that data shows that the LSW level of licensure does not pose that significant risk to the public. And after hearing all these things from our members for years, we decided to connect with two incredible sponsors of this legislation two social workers that are in our Illinois General Assembly that's Representative Lindsey, the Point of Chicago and State Senator Karina Via, who's a school social worker from the western suburbs of Chicago.

And we basically had a bill that more or less said was keeping the LSW level of licensure in place, but just removing the test. Okay, one of these things where and this doesn't usually happen with legislation, legislation sometimes can take 1235 long time to get passed. And then after it gets passed, it's a lot different than what you initially started out with. We introduced this legislation in early 2021, the early part of the session, and it passed both House chambers, both chambers in the Illinois General Assembly and then was signed by Governor Pritzker in August of 2021. This is Senate Bill 1632. So it's an incredible sort of an achievement on this as well.

And it went into effect January 1, 2022. Now, what this has done and what have we seen so far? So basically what the bill did, obviously it removed the ASWB exam, but it also allows Illinois BSW a continued path to licensure and employment in the profession. It removed a significant burden to access that disproportionately affects BIPOC communities and social workers without resources to pursue an MSW.

It removed yet another financial strain on recent MSW graduates and BSWS, and that is BSWS who have already completed their three years of postgraduate supervision by waiving the exam and exam prep cost associated with licensure. It also created a logical path for MSWs to becoming LSWs while collecting their required supervision hours to become a licensed clinical social worker. I can tell you that I get that question almost daily from people.

The chapter gets these questions all the time. Should I get my LSW or should I just wait to get my LCSW? What this does is it brings in a whole cohort of people now that are regulated by the state, which I think is really, really important, the importance of licensure, and I think we need to be really clear here, is that we're talking about the initial level of licensure, we're not talking about testing here.

And then lastly, too, and this is another point that this makes is that it creates a much needed path for macro level social workers to be legally called a social worker in the state of Illinois title that they've earned and entitled to carry. So this has been a significant probably in the many years that I've been with NASW, I have never encountered the more positive feedback from social workers about a significant piece of legislation.

And I can say that since the law went into effect January 1, there have been probably a couple of thousand people that have become LSWs under this new, under this new rule.

Jonathan Singer: So it sounds like the process for getting this legislation passed was a little different than other legislative processes in the sense that it was faster. Why do you think that was so?

Joel Rubin: I would say there are a couple of reasons. One is that first of all, we have the NASW Illinois chapter has a significantly strong presence in Springfield, a really good reputation in sort of relating to legislators from all different backgrounds. That's one. Two, I think we had two very motivated sponsors, both social workers. One state Rep. Lindsey the .1 state Senator Karina Via And lastly, the issue around social workforce, and this is really a workforce issue in many ways, is that we've been very focused in, in Illinois on getting a sense of what are the barriers to advancement in the social workforce, diversifying the social work workforce and issues around licensure have been a major barrier.

In fact, we had one grant funded study that we did in conjunction with Liability University of Chicago School Source to work on this issue. And we're right now finishing up another study on diversifying the pipelines of the profession. So I would say that those three kind of points sort of all came together sort of a perfect storm in many ways. Plus, I think the timing, I think there's a real recognition in our General Assembly and in the state that we need to have a really good and diverse mental health workforce and obviously social workers play a significant part of that mental health workforce.

Jonathan Singer: So you said you had two really strong sponsors. What does it mean in terms of the legislative process, in terms of getting legislation through committees and pass to have strong sponsors? What do they do and how do you cultivate that?

Joel Rubin: So one of the most important things that we do on a regular basis is that we encourage social workers to be involved in the political process. Election comes around. Legislators that are candidates that are running for office, that support social work values, these are people we need to support. And by doing that and also by being available to all these elected officials as content experts, this all helps when you want to pass legislation because a lot of times elected officials will come to an advocate, will come to NASW to say, hey, what do you think about this bill?

Or hey, someone came to me with this issue. What do you think about this? That just doesn't happen out of thin air. That happens because you do a lot of hard work working with people from the time that there are even candidates not even in office. You put that all together and that's really part of the legislative process. We're mandated in our code of Ethics and Standard 6.4 to do that. So it's not anything that shouldn't be new to social workers.

It's that we just tend to think that someone else is going to do it. And the legislation that we got passed regarding the removal of the ASWB test is real proof of how that cultivation and support works.

Jonathan Singer: So you were able to support these folks to become part of the legislature and what did they do in the process of getting a bill passed into legislation? Like what is their role?

Joel Rubin: Their role is to work with other legislators together with NASW to get sponsors for a bill to make sure that a particular bill gets through a committee. It's a whole process in Springfield and having that understanding, it in support of people who are on certain committees. If a bill goes to a certain committee for a hearing to be familiar with the people on that committee, that all is part of working with different legislators and having relationship with them as well.

Jonathan Singer: Joel, I really appreciate you talking through the process that NASW, Illinois went through. To sort of think about not having the ASWB exam, the legislative process. And so for folks who are listening, who are kind of excited about being able to make changes at the policy level, legislative level, what are some recommendations that you have for ways they can get involved? Things that folks can do, social workers can do to make this kind of macro level change?

Joel Rubin: Well, first thing what social workers can do is they can join NASW. That's always an important step and it's not a cliche, but our strength is in our numbers. We have over 5000 members in the state of Illinois. We could easily have 8000 or 9000 members. So that's really important.

Jonathan Singer: And one of the things that's important about that, right, is that when you can tell a legislator we're representing 8000 folks, 8000 professionals, right, paid professionals who are doing this are students, then that's different than we're representing 100 people, right?

Joel Rubin: And generally what we say is that we represent many more than our membership because we are and a lot of people, even nonmembers, would say, oh yeah, it's great, they're doing a great job, and all that. So I think the second thing is that when someone gets an action alert from NASW about anything, it could have been about the LSW law, but it could be all kinds of legislation. Please answer it. It has never been easier to respond back to something because we generally provide people with ready made letters that you can either edit to send to all your elected officials.

You can do it from the comfort of your couch, on your phone, or whatever device you prefer. It's never been easier. That's really, really important. Thirdly is getting involved with the chapter, whether it's here in Illinois or other chapters across the country, getting involved, running for a position on the board of directors, a leadership position for students. And in here in Illinois, and this is similar to other states, is that we have a very active student liaison network that involves all social work programs here in the state of Illinois that meet monthly. And they're very involved in coordinating our annual advocacy day, which a lot of states have.

We are still waiting. We hope that we're going to be back live in 23 we don't know yet. It all depends on a lot of things. But that's a really great opportunity for people to sort of see things in action, how things work in Springfield, how things work in your state capital. But those are some real basic things that and also that when we ask people is that it's also important when you're contacting your legislature is you don't always have to go to Springfield. You can always contact or even meet with them in their district office, which is actually a preferable place to meet people. It's less hectic, there's less distractions. There's a lot of opportunities for that as well.

Jonathan Singer: That's great. So if I had an idea, right, something that I was seeing in my practice, something that was kind of chatter amongst my social work colleagues that I thought, this is kind of an issue that seems to be broadly problematic. What's the best way to kind of move forward with that visa vis what you're talking about?

Joel Rubin: So a really focused way today in which it gets obviously you can contact me directly, you can contact our legislative director Kyle Hillman directly or people on our volunteer leadership. But one of the most effective ways that people communicate to the chapter or within the member, within the social community is through our MyNASW community. It's a community digest that people posted at all time, but we have people posted about all kinds of issues from third party reimbursement to testing to referrals to all kinds of things. And we're very responsive, as all NASW chapters are, we're very responsive to our members. So if you contact us, we're going to get back to you. So that is one of the clearer ways to reach out to us as well.

Jonathan Singer: Well, Joel, thank you so much for being on the podcast and talking with us about NASW Illinois legislative win and the process of being involved at the policy level. I really appreciate it.

Joel Rubin: Thank you, Jonathan. And feel free anyone, to reach out to me at NASW. My email address is, and I appreciate this opportunity to be on your podcast. Thanks.

Transcription by


Joel L. Rubin, MSW, LSW, ACSW, CAE has served as the Executive Director of the 5,000 member Illinois Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) since October of 1999.  He has over 25 years of non-for-profit management and fundraising experience, including extensive work with boards of directors, committees and volunteers, and advocacy around a wide variety of social work, human service and international political issues, as advocating on behalf of social work workforce issues. In additional to his responsibilities in Illinois, Mr. Rubin, served as Acting Deputy Director of Chapter Operations for the NASW from March 2019 to July 2020.

He received his MSW from Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois of Chicago in 1983 and a B.A in Comparative Politics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1981. He is a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW), a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) in the state of Illinois and is also a Certified Association Executive (CAE).

Mr. Rubin is a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Fellowship Leadership Program and a current adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work and Northeastern Illinois University.

He currently serves on the board of the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership and is a member of the City of Chicago’s Council on Mental Health Equity.
Mr. Rubin lives in Skokie, IL with his wife Tamara. They have three children and two grandchildren.  

References and Resources

To get an idea of how many steps are involved in getting a bill signed into law in Illinois, check out:

APA (7th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2023, February 13). #133 - Eliminating the ASWB exam from the Illinois LSW law: Interview with Joel Rubin [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from