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How to Interpret NCLEX Test Results

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The National Council of State Boards of Nursing developed the NCLEX-RN exam to create a high, national standard for nurse licensing. Over the years, NCLEX has evolved from a knowledge-based, paper test to a computerized, dynamic evaluation of judgment and critical thinking in addition to nursing knowledge. Along the way, NCSBN stopped issuing test scores. Instead, the computer asks questions to determine if you test above the passing standard. The unusual thing about NCLEX is that when the computer shuts off, you won't know definitively if you passed -- you have to wait for a letter in the mail.

Study your test breakdown if you failed. Your state board of nursing will send you a report of how many questions you answered and the percentage of correct and incorrect answers broken down by nursing subjects such as pediatrics, gerontology, school nursing, cardiology, etc. If you passed your exam, you will simply receive a letter congratulating you and informing when to expect your license.

Analyze the number of correct answers compared to the total number of questions that you were asked. As a rough guideline, you need to answer more than 80 percent correct to pass. Figure the gap between your percentage correct and 80 percent is the amount you need to improve. However, because NCLEX requires you to answer a certain number of difficult questions, and the report only tells you the number of correct and incorrect answers irrespective of the difficulty level of the questions -- it's almost impossible to know exactly how close you were to passing.

Focus your study on answering the most difficult questions possible on questions from nursing subjects in which you answered the largest number of questions wrong. Subjects include cardiology, oncology, pulmonology, rheumatology, pediatrics, obstetrics, neo-natal care, ENT, opthamology, general surgery, communicable diseases, school nursing, first aid, gerontology, emergency medicine, critical care, psychiatry and neurology. If your exam didn't ask you about one or more of these subjects, assume that it was a fluke and your next exam will. Likewise, if you did well in one subject area, don't assume it will carry you as it may not appear in your next sitting.

Count during your exam how many questions you answer before the computer shuts off. NCLEX requires a minimum of 78 questions and allows a maximum of 265. The exam only ends early if you have either scored well enough to be above the passing standard by a 95 percent confidence level or if you have answered enough questions below the passing standard that you have clearly failed. If your exam ends soon after the 78 minimum questions, you have either nailed or failed it.

Look at how long you tested. If you finished before the six-hour maximum, you either cleared the 95 percent confidence rating, or fell consistently below passing. If you tested for the entire six hours, that means you didn't clear the 95% confidence line, nor were you far enough below passing standard for the exam to cut you off. The good news is that it's quite possible that you were above passing standard, but at less than a 95% confidence rating. Most of the time, this scenario results in a pass.

Look to see if you took all 265 questions. This is essentially the same as taking the exam for the full six hours. If you don't reach the 95 percent confidence score or answer too many questions wrong, the exam just keeps going until you either run out of questions or time out. Usually, you only take the last 60 questions if you are sitting on the edge of passing conclusively, which means running through the entire exam isn't necessarily bad.

Consider from your own observations how many difficult questions you answered. If you had a high number of top-level questions before your exam ended, that's an indicator that you passed. NCLEX, being dynamic, makes your next question easier if you answer one wrong, whereas if you answer correctly, it makes your next question more challenging. Answer enough of the most challenging questions and you pass. Many candidates who end the exam feeling like they were struggling are the ones who passed because their last round of questions were all very difficult.

Tip

No two NCLEX sittings are the same. The computer may ask you questions for any nursing subject and in any distribution. You could get many questions in one clinical area or find yourself with a broad mix.

References

About the Author

Eric Feigenbaum started his career in print journalism, becoming editor-in-chief of "The Daily" of the University of Washington during college and afterward working at two major newspapers. He later did many print and Web projects including re-brandings for major companies and catalog production.