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Counseling license may not require exam in Virginia

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(The Center Square) — If House Bill 426 passes, those seeking to become licensed professional counselors in Virginia will be able to do so without taking the licensing exam – in theory.

Supporters say the measure could simultaneously open the field to more people, while addressing the shortage of mental health professionals.

To become a licensed professional counselor in the commonwealth, applicants must currently pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselors Examination. But the bill’s sponsor, Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, argues that “not all capable people can express their brilliance through an examination” and that there’s bias in testing that results in more white people getting ahead and other races being left behind.

“There is a startling statistic that comes with counseling examination pass rates. On the first attempt, four out of five white test takers will pass. Yet less than 50% of black test takers will pass,” Cole said when presenting his bill to a subcommittee.

“It’s not only in the field of counseling. Test results show a continuous bias in their results, from the SATs to [the] ASWB social workers’ exam – the disparity is evident. We must acknowledge that there is something going on here.”

The bill requires Virginia’s Board of Counseling to devise an “examination alternative” for would-be counselors to become licensed. It reported out of the House of Delegates Health and Human Services subcommittee 5-3.

Del. Otto Wachsmann, R-Sussex, opposed the bill when it was presented to the full committee, referencing his experience becoming a licensed pharmacist.

“When I went to school, I was expected to take an exam and pass it before I got my license. I’ve always thought that these examinations were to assure minimum competency, and I’m a little bit at a loss as to suddenly why we’re going to exempt licensed health care professionals. I’m speaking against the bill,” Wachsmann said.

Those who, like Wachsmann, oppose alternative testing measures worry that the removal or replacement of standardized exams will enable those who are unprepared and ill-equipped to enter the field.

Both Cole and Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, who supported the legislation, think there are ways to avoid a reduction in standards while allowing more people to achieve licensure.

“We want to make sure that the bill doesn’t take away from any of the requirements to becoming a licensed professional counselor,” Cole said, pointing out that licensure in the commonwealth would still require a master’s degree in mental health or marriage and family counseling, a minimum of 60 graduate credit hours and thousands of residency hours.

Price defended the bill, agreeing with those who testified on its behalf that it’s a subjective and poor way of assessing professional competence. The exam consists of 11 hypothetical counseling cases, each described and followed by multiple-choice questions.

“There was conversation as to the fact of the way that the alternative process is being created would be based on actual experience in the field that can definitely measure someone’s readiness for a profession more than a multiple choice exam with tricky language, especially for people whose English is their second language,” Price said.

The bill ultimately passed the full House 54-46, with support from three Republicans. It may very well pass the Senate, as it reported out of a Senate subcommittee Friday, 5-0.

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