Duquesne, nursing students clash over diplomas

Raymond Arke | News Editor

A group of 24 nursing students had their diplomas withheld because they failed to meet a Duquesne-set minimum score on a national nursing preparatory test, various Pittsburgh news outlets first reported on June 6.

The Health Education System, Inc, or HESI, exam is a nationally offered test that prepares nursing students for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which is needed for a nursing license. Reaching a school-set benchmark of 925 points on the HESI was required to pass the UPNS 422 Role Preparation II nursing class, which is a graduation requirement, according to a May 22 letter from Mary Ellen Glasgow, dean of the Nursing School.

Problems arose when 34 of the 156 graduating nursing students failed to meet the 925 point benchmark. They received an Incomplete for the class and were withheld diplomas.

After discussions with the students, the University then, to address their concerns, revised the benchmark down to 900. As such, 10 students were then able to receive a diploma, leaving 24 students under the 900 point threshold.

Paul Furiga, founder, president and CEO of WordWrite Communications, was chosen to represent the affected students in their effort to get their diplomas.

“[They] are very, very concerned about retribution from Duquesne … they are uncomfortable speaking publicly,” Furiga said in an interview with The Duke.

Furiga said the students are hoping that the University will relent and give them their degrees.

“Right now the students are giving Duquesne the chance to do the right thing. In the meantime, they are doing what they need to to get their degree,” he said.

Glasgow told The Duke that while the diplomas are withheld, they are not being denied.

“To get a diploma, you need to have completed your course work. For these students, the last course is a comprehensive exam, and they did not pass it,” Glasgow said.

Glasgow also stressed that the standard is put in place to ensure that students are prepared not only for the licensing exam but also for real field work.

“We expect a 900 HESI, which would be approximately an 80 percent conversion rate. That means you know 80 percent of the material. When you have to take care of people and lives are at stake, you want people to know what they’re doing,” she said.

Timothy Austin, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Duquesne, stressed the importance of how Duquesne uses the HESI as preparation for the critical, “intensive, comprehensive” NCLEX nursing license exam, which is nationally required.

“Whether the university likes it or not, whether students like it or not, they are going to have to take the NCLEX exam,” he said in an interview with The Duke.

Austin reiterated that the HESI exam is “a great way” to prepare for the NCLEX and that many other nursing schools around the country also use the HESI to prepare graduating students.

While there are other tests Duquesne could use, Austin said that the administration and the nursing school are confident in using the HESI.

“We felt HESI was the best of the bunch,” he said, “Our job is to prepare students … the nice thing about HESI is that it mirrors exactly the way the NCLEX is going to ask questions.”

Furiga said that the HESI test is more controversial than the University says.

According to the website of Elsevier Education, the maker of the HESI test, “Standardized tests should not be used as the single evaluation method to determine students’ ability to sit for the NCLEX exams.”

The article also mentions that “to insure [sic] that students take the test seriously, their results should be a significant factor in the course grade for selected courses.”

Furiga also noted that the way Duquesne is using the test is “banned” in several states, including New York. A letter he provided  to The Duke from The State Education Department of New York forbids “gatekeeper” actions like Duquesne’s.

“Performance on an external standardized examination is not to be used as the sole criterion in determining whether a student passes a course, is awarded a diploma or is certified as eligible to take the licensure examination,” read the letter.

Pennsylvania is not one of the states which bans this use of the exam.

One of the main complaints the angered students had was that they were not prepared for the HESI exam. However, Austin pushes back on that sentiment.

“All the way through their Duquesne career, [the students] have been taking many HESI tests,” in classes like surgical nursing, Austin explained. “It’s a little unfair for them to say ‘I didn’t know about HESI.’ You’ve been doing HESI all the way along in doses.”

Glasgow also confirms that students were informed about the school’s use of the test early on in their education.

“They’ve known about this since their freshman year because we had the HESI when they were freshmen,” Glasgow said. “We have a HESI test in every single clinical course, we’ve had them before. It’s not a new requirement.”

Current nursing students can also vouch for the functionality of the test. Emily Kropfl, a junior nursing student, has already experienced the controversial exam and supports Duquesne’s use of it.

“I have taken two HESI exams … one good experience, one not so good experience. While I find the exams extremely difficult and scary, I do believe it is fair for the School of Nursing to expect students to reach a benchmark on this standardized exam in order to pass a specific class,” she said.

She thinks that by requiring students to pass a benchmark, the experience makes them better prepared for the NCLEX and the real world.

“I think Duquesne holds its students to a higher standard by doing this … The required benchmarks on the standardized HESI exams are indicators of future success on the NCLEX exam upon graduation, which gives students confidence and competence,” Kropfl said.

Kalei Tacik is also a junior nursing student at Duquesne. She has taken parts of the HESI as well throughout her academic career.

“My experience with the HESI has been relatively positive so far. I’ve done well on the two I’ve taken, but it does take a lot of studying to accomplish that,” she said.

However, seeing 24 students unable to graduate worries Tacik, and she believes it could be a problem with the school.

“I feel in this instance, it is completely a problem with [the] Duquesne Nursing School … I’m nervous that I could be one of these students in two years simply because I wasn’t taught the material on the exam,” Tacik said.

Even after lowering the benchmark to 900 after what he calls “a great deal of fuss,” Austin said that Duquesne is doing everything it can to help the remaining students. The university is offering them a free remedial course over the summer as well as free room on campus for those from out of town.

The affected students are taking the remedial course, yet aren’t happy about it, according to Furiga.

“Most of the students are in the remedial class [but] they don’t think it’s a fair offer,” he said, reiterating that they just want their diplomas.

Austin also addressed an online petition asking Duquesne to give the 24 students their degrees. It has collected 418 signatures as of June 8.

“A petition out there on a website is saying Duquesne should just give them their degrees; we can’t do that,” Austin said. “Our accrediting body would have us by our neck … if we did that kind of thing.”

Glasgow expects the students will do well and does not want them to give up.

“I don’t want students to feel defeated. I even went and talked to the students. I gave them a pep talk; I said that this is just a little bump in the road, and that it’s going to take a little bit longer. We’re going to do all of this for you, and we want you to be successful,” she said.

Zach Landau contributed reporting.