A group of Duquesne University nursing students is petitioning the school to change a graduation requirement that prevented more than a fifth of this year’s class from graduating on time.
“We do not feel that the Duquesne University School of Nursing should be able to decide if we are competent and knowledgeable enough to practice nursing based on the results of a single standardized test,” said the petition, which had 389 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
The school required that, in order to graduate, students score a 925 on the HESI Exit Exam, a test designed to prepare students for the NCLEX, the board exam required for nursing licensure. Out of 156 prospective graduates, 34 failed to meet that cutoff score, said the school.
They were informed days prior to graduation weekend, on May 12 and 13, that they had not fulfilled the requirement.
“It was devastating,” said Paul Furiga, a spokesman for the students and their families, who do not want to be identified for fear of retribution from the school and out of concern for job prospects. Mr. Furiga said many students were unaware of the requirement, which was “buried in a 160-page handbook.”
The school disagrees with that contention. Students whose score on a diagnostic test showed that they were in danger of not reaching the cut-off score were “clearly flagged as needing some additional work and warned that their scores put them in some jeopardy,” said Duquesne provost Timothy Austin. Students were given a practice test and then two opportunities to pass the test, said Duquesne spokeswoman Bridget Fare.
Five or six years ago, Duquesne instituted the policy in its nursing school to require a cut-off score on a NCLEX preparatory test as a condition of graduation, said Mr. Austin. Three years ago — after the current graduating class had matriculated — that cut-off score was increased to 925 on the HESI, he said, in response to concern that the NCLEX was becoming harder and more difficult to pass. Neither he nor Ms. Fare could recall what the previous score was.
The change was effective immediately, he said, and although previous graduating classes have had some students who didn’t pass in time for graduation, the number in this year’s class is significantly higher. Mr. Austin is unsure why, other than to say that the results did not come as a surprise.
“The academic records of a number of these students suggested that they were going to find it quite challenging to meet the required level,” he said. “I think the faculty might have had at least a suspicion that this was going to be a tough testing year for this group.”
The petition said that the students affected include those “at the top of their class” and criticized the 925 cut-off score as “arbitrary,” noting that students below that level would still be likely to pass the NCLEX. The petition also argues that the school is trying to inflate its NCLEX passage rate to increase its ranking and appeal to more students.
After lobbying from parents and students, the school lowered the cut-off score at the end of May. That allowed nine more students to graduate. One additional student appealed to re-take the test and passed, leaving the number of affected students at 24.
Duquesne is allowing those students to take a remedial class and have access to free tutoring over the summer, said Mr. Austin. Those who live out of town can also live on campus free of charge. The students will be given two more opportunities to reach the new cut-off score of 900. The cases of students who haven’t passed at that point will be considered individually, said Mr. Austin.
For some students, though, the damage has been done, said Mr. Furiga, noting that he has been told that some students from out of state have had job offers rescinded. A letter the students and their families sent to the provost in May asserts that the policy has also enacted a human toll that “has led to students seeking professional help from the medical community and being placed on prescription medications.”
Ms. Fare said that the school was unaware of any jobs that have been lost as a result, and that the school had reached out to UPMC and Allegheny Health Network to try to hold local job offers for affected students.
The issue of requiring cut-off scores for graduation has been passionately debated in nursing schools in recent years.
A 2012 report from the National League for Nursing found that 20 percent of nursing schools require a minimum test score in order to graduate, and that increasingly the issue is leading to litigation from affected students. The policy of using a score on an external exam as a prerequisite to take a licensure exam is banned in New York state, and in March, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell decided to eliminate its cutoff score of 850 after protests from students.
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