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Duquesne University mom speaks up for nursing students who passed controversial test

Ben Schmitt
| Saturday, June 10, 2017, 5:30 p.m.
Old Main on Duquesne University campus is shown, Thursday, June 8, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Old Main on Duquesne University campus is shown, Thursday, June 8, 2017.
Tricia Cateslli
Tricia Cateslli

Tricia Castelli wants recognition for her daughter, a new Duquesne University nursing school graduate preparing to take a job with UPMC.

The graduate, Madison Castelli, made Dean's List several times, passed a controversial standardized exam called HESI, and is preparing for a nursing board exam.

Her mother thinks those accomplishments, and the success of other graduates, are overshadowed by recent student complaints about the HESI exam. Two dozen students could not graduate in May because they did not meet a benchmark score on the test. They started an online petition last week to air grievances.

“This really upsets me,” said Tricia Castelli, who works as a nurse educator in the Harrisburg area. “Madison busted her rear to get the right score. She practically lived in the library.”

Sometimes, the pressure led Madison to call her mom for a pep talk. Sometimes, she cried and felt overwhelmed. She declined to comment for this story.

“It is stressful, and it's not easy,” Tricia Castelli said. “But neither is nursing. All of the girls who passed are not even being recognized, because girls who did not pass are being given all the attention.”

The HESI exam, which can be used to evaluate a student's readiness for the board exam called NCLEX, sparked heated debate last week in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Proponents of the test say it properly prepares students for what could possibly be one of the most important tests of their lives. Detractors say some universities, like Duquesne, set arbitrary mandated-score benchmarks that discount four years of hard work.

“A good score is attainable if you put the work in,” Castelli said. “All of the students knew what they needed to get as a benchmark for HESI.”

The controversy became public after 34 of 156 Duquesne nursing students did not meet a 925 point benchmark on HESI. They were allowed to walk during graduation ceremonies in May but could not graduate.

The university on May 31 lowered the benchmark to 900. This gave 10 more students the ability to receive a diploma, leaving 24 students to take summer remediation courses.

Duquense Provost Timothy Austin told the Tribune-Review last week that HESI offers a stellar way to prepare students for the NCLEX. He said the university does not plan to make any additional revisions to graduation requirements.

Castelli wasn't thrilled that Duquesne lowered the 925 required score to 900.

“Duquesne has a very successful program,” she said. “We knew it wasn't easy from the very beginning. It's a challenge because the job of nursing is a challenge. You never know what you are walking into any day you go to work.

“The girls who passed worked for it. Are they prepared? I feel as though they are.”

The test has caused rifts at other nursing schools across the country, and some have done away with it or revised requirements.

Paul Furiga, of WordWrite Communications, who is serving as a spokesman for some affected families, said students aren't against testing. They are opposed to use of HESI as a single barrier to graduation.

“All Duquesne nursing students have a right to be upset because this situation raises questions about the program,' he said. “Yet more students from more recent classes are reaching out to us. This suggests a broader problem. State licensing boards want consistent application of teaching methods and consistent results to measure success. It raises questions when significant percentages of several classes are denied the opportunity to sit for the licensing boards despite doing well in school. Hitting a specific score on the HESI is no predictor of whether you will be a good nurse. This just doesn't add up.”

UPMC Chief Nurse Executive Holly Lorenz said she supports Duquesne and its use of HESI.

“Nurses need to be astute people who really understand labs, and psychosocial needs and medications and pathophysiology,” Lorenz told the Trib. “It's complex and it's very scientific, but there is nothing more exciting than being able to be the nurse that is helping a patient.”

Valerie Howard, dean of Robert Morris University's School of Nursing and Health Sciences, echoed those sentiments. Robert Morris also uses HESI as part of its curriculum.

“Our citizens deserve to be treated by nurses with the highest level of education and training possible to enhance health outcomes, decrease errors and improve patient safety,” she said.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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