SPC instructor quits after test's security breached

A nursing class had to retake the exam after more than half scored 90 percent or better.

Published May 15, 2007

A nursing instructor at St. Petersburg College has resigned amid an investigation into suspiciously high scores on an exam last month.

Rebecca McNeel, 53, left her job Friday after college administrators talked to her about a mandatory test given to graduating nursing students.

"We met with her, and we were satisfied that there was a lack of test security, " said Sydney McKenzie, the college's lawyer. "And it was mutually agreed that she resign."

McNeel, a registered nurse who lives in Treasure Island, did not return calls from the Times on Monday. It was her first semester teaching at St. Petersburg College. She taught an advanced nursing class and nursing care management.

To graduate from the school's nursing program with an associate's degree, students must take a nursing test meant to prepare them for the state board exam. Usually students enrolled in nursing care management, one of the classes that McNeel taught, sit for the test.

The test was administered electronically by Assessment Technologies Institute out of Kansas City on April 9.

Of the 130 students who took the test that day, 51 percent scored 90 percent or higher.

Administrators grew concerned when they compared those high scores with those of previous years' classes. They also received a tip from a student that said a practice test they had received matched the exam.

The college launched an investigation and readministered the test this month. The second time, only 20 percent scored 90 percent or higher.

McNeel had access to the test before April 9, McKenzie said. At some point, some of the students in the program obtained information about what questions would be on the test, and McNeel knew it.

"She would have known that was improper, " said McKenzie, declining to give further specifics on how the students got the information.

The investigation is continuing, she said.

Students who passed the exam the first time on April 9 but failed the second time were able retake the exam again, said nursing dean Jean Wortock.

The breached exam is a first for the nursing program at St. Petersburg College, which began in 1954, Wortock said. The program now has about 600 students and is based out of the Caruth Health Education Center in Pinellas Park.

The suspicion surrounding the test carries a special sting because of the high ethical standards required of nurses.

"The public trusts us based on our code of ethics, " said Laurie Badzek, director at the Center for Ethics and Human Relations for the American Nursing Association. "It's unfortunate that nurses are held to a higher moral standard, but we are, and when you enter nursing you have to understand that."

As a result of the exam breach, St. Petersburg College president Carl M. Kuttler Jr. is developing a panel of administrators to review the issues of electronic testing and insuring ethics in testing.

The school has been giving the nursing exam electronically for five years.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or 727 445-4162.