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Licensing rates hurt 4 nursing programs in Western Pennsylvania

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Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

Four registered nursing programs in Western Pennsylvania are operating under “provisional” status with the state because too many graduates failed a national licensing examination, according to state nursing board officials.

Carlow University, Heritage Valley Sewickley School of Nursing, Allegany College of Maryland's Somerset campus and Westmoreland County Community College fell short of the state-mandated mark on the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nurses from October 2010 through September 2011, officials said.

At least 80 percent of a school's graduates taking the test for the first time must pass for the school to have full approval, officials said.

“We take these things seriously,” said Kathleen Malloy, dean of health professions at WCCC. “We immediately notified our students, immediately did our progress report (for the state).”

The schools have until the end of the 2012-13 exam year to remedy the problems or face losing state approval.

Without that approval, a nursing program effectively shuts down because its students can't be licensed, state officials said. Nurses can't be licensed without graduating from a program in good standing and passing the national exam, which tests competency in a number of critical areas, such as medications, adult and pediatric care, diseases and psychiatric care.

Alicia Hilty, 28, of Indiana graduated from WCCC in August and passed the national exam 13 days later, she said. She works as a nurse at Beacon Ridge, a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Indiana.

Hilty said she was surprised to learn about the problems at WCCC.

“It wasn't a big thing for me,” she said of the test.

Malloy said problems often arise when graduates don't immediately take the licensing exam. The test is revised every three years and typically gets more difficult, so students who wait years to take it may not be prepared, Malloy said.

WCCC, with 320 nursing students enrolled at three campuses — Youngwood, Indiana and Waynesburg — had an overall pass rate of 77.24 percent, according to school records.

WCCC officials said they are putting students through intensive test preparation, offering more tutoring opportunities and working in smaller clinical groups to improve pass rates.

Poor pass rates at the Waynesburg campus and in the Youngwood-based evening and weekend program — 60 percent and 68 percent, respectively — pulled down the program's average, Malloy said. Eighty-one percent of Youngwood day students and 94 percent of those at the Indiana campus passed the exam.

With the changes, WCCC's overall pass rate so far this year is about 84.4 percent, she said.

Carlow spokesman Drew Wilson said that school, which offers nursing programs at campuses in Oakland, Hempfield and Cranberry, had a 78.5 percent pass rate. The school graduates 45 to 50 students a year from its undergraduate program.

Wilson said the school submitted a corrective plan to the state, which was approved, but would not offer details. The nursing school's dean, Clare Hopkins, declined an interview request.Carlow would have reached the 80 percent threshold if one more student had passed the exam, Wilson said.

At Heritage Valley, a change in graduation dates caused the school to go on provisional status, said Linda Homyk, chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services for Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital.

Students now graduate in October instead of June, which puts them on the market when hospitals are recruiting more heavily, she said.

But with no graduating class between June 2010 and October 2011, the only students from Heritage Valley to take the licensure exam were six who waited months or years after graduation to do so. Three passed, for a 50 percent pass rate that year. Homyk said.

Allegany College of Maryland has campuses in Somerset and Everett, but only Somerset graduates were evaluated by the state because the Everett campus only graduates a class every other year, said spokeswoman Shauna McQuade. She could not provide figures for the number of students who took the exam or the pass rate.

Nancy Spector, director of regulatory innovation for the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, said it's rare for a program to lose state approval.

Of the 140 practical and registered nursing programs approved in Pennsylvania, 19 are on provisional status, most for posting poor scores on the national exam, said Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Department of State, which oversees the nursing board.

Spector, whose council includes nursing boards in 50 states, said the boards “certainly want the program to be approved, and we work with them as hard as we can to keep them approved.”

Provisional status can be a cause for concern, Spector said.

“Boards get concerned if they see only 60 percent of your graduates have minimal competencies,” she said.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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