Duquesne University withholds diplomas in feud with nursing students

Updated 26 minutes ago

A dispute over a controversial standardized test has blocked the graduation of more than 20 Duquesne University nursing students, placing their parents at odds with school administrators.

The students — part of a nursing class of 156 students at the Uptown school — did not receive diplomas at Duquesne’s May 12-13 graduation ceremonies because their scores did not meet a school-imposed minimum on a national preparatory test. The Health Education Systems Incorporated exam or HESI, is used by other schools in a similar way to prepare students for state licensing exams.

The university’s decision to withhold the bachelor’s degree diplomas set off an outcry among parents and their children. Many of them gathered over graduation weekend to craft a plan to fight back.

“It’s absolutely a devastating situation,” said Paul Furiga, a Pittsburgh public relations expert who serves as a spokesman for the families. He said the students are fearful of retribution if they speak out publicly.

“A number of students have gone home and some have said, after four years, that they’re not sure they want to continue with nursing as a career.”

The number of students caught up in the feud had reached 34 as the feud escalated. But 10 of 26 who appealed eventually received diplomas.

There are 24 students whose diplomas remain in the balance.

Three years ago, Duquesne’s nursing school issued requirements that students score at least 925 on the multiple choice exam prior to graduating and moving on to take the National Council Licensure Examination or NCLEX, a board exam for the licensing of nurses, according to Provost Timothy Austin.

Austin told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday the HESI better prepares students for passing the NCLEX test. He said it has been administered in similar fashion as a final exam at Duquesne.

“There’s lots of disagreement in general over high-stakes testing,” he said. “The NCLEX is a high-stakes test. Whether you like the way it is written or not, we have to prepare our students for it.”

Austin said Drexel and La Salle universities use HESI or similar tests with benchmark requirements for nursing requirements.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing uses a different standardized test for preparation, but does not use a comprehensive exam like HESI for graduation requirements, a spokeswoman said.

The test has been contentious in other nursing schools across the country, and some have done away with it or revised requirements. Duquesne students who chose to proceed with commencement received an empty folder without a diploma.

Furiga, who is CEO of WordWrite Communications, said a few of the students have had job offers rescinded.

Some of the students would have graduated with honors had they met the HESI benchmark.

“All the parents want is for their children to receive their degrees and have opportunity to sit for board exams,” Furiga said. “Some of them have talked to attorneys, but they want to give Duquense the opportunity to do the right thing.”

In a May 22 letter to Austin and Duquesne President Ken Gormley, a group of parents said some of their children have lost jobs over the HESI mandate.

“The decision to use the HESI as a means to ignore four years of academic achievement, imposing it on students after they enrolled in the Nursing School, all in an effort to maximize first time NCLEX pass rates as a means to better market the Nursing School, is not keeping with the mission of the University,” the parents wrote. “This is important and the students involved, whose lives are being detrimentally affected, and we as their parents, will fight to sure this wrong. Let’s fix it now.”

Since then, Duquesne agreed to modify the benchmark, revising the necessary HESI score to 900. This allowed nine more students to graduate, Austin said. Additionally, one student won an appeal to immediately retake the test and passed.

The remaining 24 students are receiving free tutoring this summer and will have two additional opportunities to take the test, Austin said.

As for the collective group of angry parents, he said, “The fact of the matter is each individual student is unique. I can’t respond as provost to a block of parents without being unfair to somebody. I’m trying to take an individual approach to examine and resolve each student’s challenge on the basis of her or his performance.”

In a follow-up letter to students involved, Nursing School Dean Mary Ellen Glasgow said the lower score threshold came after meetings among faculty, staff, and administrators.

Still, she cautioned, “Lowering the standard to 900 will likely mean that a few more graduates will, indeed, not pass the NCLEX on their first attempt — most notably those that have struggled academically with a number of ‘C’ grades or who have exhibited inconsistent exit HESI scores.”

A similar dispute arose this past academic year at the University of Massachusetts Lowell School of Nursing. Administrators required a HESI score of 850 before graduation, but reversed that mandate on March 8 after outcry from students.

“The students raised some concerns and the faculty and school of nursing leadership listened, took them very seriously and re-evaluated the policy,” said Jonathan Strunk, a university spokesman. “The new policy continues to use the HESI exam, but it is no longer a benchmark as to whether students progress through the program.”

Eighty-seven nursing students graduated from University of Massachusetts Lowell this spring.

He said that the test is now used as a final examination, but a benchmark score is no longer required.

“Some still feel like it is an excellent predictor for passing the NCLEX,” Strunk said.

A nursing professor who has analyzed and written studies on the HESI test told the Trib that many nursing schools face pressure in gaining or maintaining state board of nursing approval based on students’ NCLEX results.

“I hear about these situations every single year,” said Darrell Spurlock, a professor and director of the Leadership Center for Nursing Education Research at Widener University in Chester. “The first-time NCLEX pass rate is where schools are judged. That creates cascading pressure on the nursing schools, which is passed to the students.”

He said he understands the outrage by parents and students.

“Especially when students have a high GPA and can’t get the test mark,” he said. Everyone is left to wonder ‘what did the grades mean if my score meant I wasn’t ready to graduate.’”

Provost Austin pointed out that students are given a handbook each year that lays out curriculum and policies. They are required to sign a document indicating they read it. The HESI requirements were clearly explained, he said.

“I object to any insinuation of a bait-and-switch concept,” Austin said. “We made every possible effort to make sure students were aware that this was going to be a requirement.”

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

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