Nursing Exam Pass Rates Causing Palpitations

BY EMMA SULLIVAN // MAY 7, 2015 //

To become a registered nurse is the ultimate goal of most nursing students. But an increasing percentage of Curry graduates are failing to realize that goal—at least on their first attempt.

In 2011, Curry had a 98 percent passing rate for first-time takers of the National Council Licensure Examinations, better known as NCLEX, which are required for those who wish to work as a registered nurse in the United States. In 2014, the passing rate fell to 62 percent. The state and national averages were approximately 81 percent.

That performance left Curry with the sixth-worst pass rate in the state, out of the 49 Massachusetts colleges and universities that offer a program in registered nursing. In 2011, Curry was sixth best.

PHOTO BY PETE, creative commons

PHOTO BY PETE, creative commons

The passing standard and format of the NCLEX exam did change in 2013. Traditional multiple-choice questions were replaced with fill-in-the-blanks, and more essays were added. Despite the changes, however, several Massachusetts colleges maintained their high first-time pass rates.

For example, in 2011, UMass Amherst had an 88 percent first-time pass rate. In 2014, the university’s pass rate barely dropped, to 87 percent. In 2011, Becker College’s first-time pass rate was 99 percent; it’s currently at 97 percent.

Of the top 10-ranked nursing programs in Massachusetts in 2011—based on first-time pass rates—only four dropped off of the list in 2014. In addition to Curry, they are Salem State University, Lawrence Memorial/Regis College, and Anna Maria College.

Northeastern University, Simmons College, Worcester State University, Becker College, Fitchburg State University, and Regis College have remained in the top 10.

It’s noteworthy that the number of Curry students taking the exam has increased in recent years. In 2011, 87 Curry students took NCLEX for the first time; 85 passed. Last year, 112 took the exam and 69 passed. In 2013, 123 Curry students took the exam for the first time; 93 passed (76 percent).

According to Fran Jackson, director of communications at Curry, there are many factors that influence exam results.

“Individual student groups vary year to year,” she said. “Individual students’ anxiety around test-taking varies….What nursing faculty have heard more recently is students taking the test to see what it’s like, with the anticipation that they will be taking it again—almost like the first time taking the test is a practice attempt.”

Jackson said those who do not pass the exam on their first attempt are able to re-take a Curry College review class at no extra cost. She additionally reported that Curry students pass the exam at a 94 percent to 99 percent success rate on repeat attempts.

Nursing professors Cathleen Santos and Maureen Murphy, chairperson of the nursing department, declined to comment for this story.

Curry senior nursing major Ariana Sicuso said she is extremely nervous about her upcoming NCLEX.

“I think about it almost every day, and have nightmares about it because I am afraid of failing,” she said.

But even in her darkest moments, Sicuso remains hopeful. “It is scary because it’s such an important test, but I think Curry is leading us in the right direction to pass.”

Sicuso said she plans to participate in an intensive five-day NCLEX preparation program after graduation this month. After the review program, she plans on reviewing a little bit every day and taking the NCLEX in June or July.

Nursing professor Don Anderson, who is nationally known for his involvement with NCLEX—including the development of questions—has long taught the program at Curry and continues to do so.

Ethan Spiewakowski, a sophomore nursing major, is confident that the first-time passing rate will increase.

“They have changed the curriculum to better prepare nursing students for the modern NCLEX,” said Spiewakowski. “I believe the passing rate will increase, even though the course load and test gets a little harder each year.”

According to Jackson, the nursing program has adjusted its curriculum around the format of the new NCLEX. More exams feature fill-in-the-blanks and essays.

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