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Exam results raise red flag

Unusually high scores on a nursing test first brought joy, then roused SPC's suspicion.

By NICOLE HUTCHESON
Published April 22, 2007


St. Petersburg College administrators are investigating what they suspect could be a widespread case of cheating on a nursing exam this month.

Administrators said Friday they are trying to determine whether students got a copy of the test before it was given. They have not determined what the consequences of any cheating could be.

The test, administered April 9 to 130 students, is given twice a year as a final step before nursing students graduate with an associate's degree.

The state of Florida does not require the test, but the college makes students take it before they graduate to help prepare them for the required national licensing exam.

Of the students who took the test on April 9, 51 percent scored 90 percent or higher, according to the college. That's nearly three times as many as scored that high previously.

Initially, administrators were proud of the scores.

But a closer look proved troubling.

"There's a predictability on these test," said Sydney McKenzie, the college's lawyer. "And what we found was way outside that model."

To determine whether their suspicions were correct, administrators compared the April test scores with those of the previous class of nursing graduates. Of the 175 students who took the test in December, only 18 percent ranked in the 90th percentile or higher.

"When we saw they the current class were scoring significantly higher that was really a red flag," said Jean Wortock, dean of nursing at the school.

Administrators also analyzed how the class had performed on tests taken earlier in the semester.

"We found the April test scores were clearly elevated in comparison to some of their other scores" Wortock said.

New test given

A tip from a student about a practice test being circulated also added to speculation over the test scores' legitimacy. The student told administrators that some questions on the real test had been on the practice test, McKenzie said.

A new test was administered to students on Thursday. Those results have yet to be made public. The school's graduation is scheduled for May 7.

Administrators haven't decided what would happen to students if the college determines that they cheated on the test.

One possibility is that the students would receive a zero in the class associated with the test - nursing care management - making them ineligible for graduation.

St. Petersburg College's nursing program was instituted in 1954. The program now has about 600 students and is based out of the Caruth Health Education Center in Pinellas Park. The nursing associate's degree program is four semesters long and is intended to prepare students for the National State Board exam, which is required to be licensed as a registered nurse.

The test in question is provided by Assessment Technologies Institute out of Kansas City and consists of 180 questions, including multiple choice, short answer and fill in the blank. Students are given three hours to complete the exam.

Soon after speculation began over the April 9 test results, the college began working with the testing company and the faculty to help determine what happened.

Zero tolerance policy

The college's has a zero tolerance policy regarding cheating.

"We're using all the information to determine how the test was obtained and who was responsible and who benefited," McKenzie said.

In her 31 years at the college, Wortock said it was the first time the school had undergone such an investigation.

"I'd love to say it's going to be the last" she said. "We're putting every possible initiative in place to ensure this doesn't occur again."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

130 Students who took exam on April 9

51 Percent of students scoring 90 percent or higher on April 9 exam

175 Students who took exam in December

18 Percent who ranked in the 90th percentile or higher on exam in December