“What were the program’s NCLEX scores this year?”

By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

Nurse educators have heard this phrase dozens and dozens of times in their career.  At times we can reply with pride (and often relief!)—“Our first time pass rate exceeded our expectations, and we were expecting this class to do very well!” Other times we are counting every student who passes with crossed fingers and bated breath.  Over the years as a faculty, Associate Dean, and Dean, I have had both experiences and have spent considerable time thinking about ways to maintain or improve my students’ NCLEX scores.

Many factors play into students’ success, some of which the faculty cannot control.  However, the good news is that there are factors that we CAN control. Consider the impact of the following factors, designed to support student success (and make them confident, safe novice nurses):

  • A curriculum that emphasizes competencies tested by the NCLEX examination
  • Teaching-learning activities designed to engage students so they can practice the required competencies
  • Faculty-made tests structured like the NCLEX examination to provide students experience in a testing environment that represent actual nursing practice.

If these three factors are in place in your educational program, you will have a strong foundation for student success.

I expect you are thinking that these factors cover much of the educational process—and perhaps wondering where to begin to assess whether they are present in your own curriculum. Luckily, the National Council of State Board of Nursing (NCSBN) gives us an effective framework that can be used to evaluate the extent to which the curriculum, the teaching-learning activities, and the teacher-made examinations are consistent with the NCLEX examination.

The NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN Detailed Test Plan for Educators are published on the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) website.  Be sure to use the DETAILED TEST PLAN for your evaluation as it provides not only test plan structure and the distribution by percentage of content across each Client Need Category and Integrated Processes within the NCLEX test plan, it also gives activity statements and related concepts from the most recent RN/PN Practice analysis that links the NCLEX Examination to practice.  The DETAILED TEST PLANs for both RNs and PNs can be found at:

So, how do you use this NCSBN resource?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Review each syllabus, including course description, course objectives, and content list with teaching learning activities, to evaluate if the content in the syllabus is consistent with that included in the Test Plan. It is important to be very familiar with all the activity statements and related concepts in each Client Need category and Integrated Processes in order to accurately evaluate the content within each course.
  2. After each syllabus is evaluated, analyze the deficits in each syllabus and in the curriculum as a whole. Certainly, the curriculum as a whole should represent the Client Need Categories in the percentage recommended by the Test Plan.  The Integrated Processes should also be well represented in each course.
  3. Review selected faculty-made tests to determine if the NCLEX-RN Categories/Processes are adequately represented as defined by the NCLEX Test Plan. Labelling test questions according to the category/process they represent can ultimately save you time in the future. It is also important to note that the NCLEX exams include only questions written at the application level or higher. To the extent possible, I would suggest that you emphasize these types of questions in all your tests.

Using the NCLEX Detailed Test Plan information to evaluate your curriculum, teaching-learning activities, and faculty-made tests can provide a clear picture of areas to improve your program’s curriculum and ultimately, the NCLEX first-time pass rate.

Some of you may be thinking, “This sounds like we are teaching to the (NCLEX) test,” which often has negative connotations. I would suggest to you that teaching to THIS test is a good thing. The NCLEX Test Plan is built upon a thorough analysis of the practice of novice nurses and is revised every three years.  An overview of the research process for this analysis is also included on the National Council of State Boards of Nursing website (https://www.ncsbn.org/exam-statistics-and-publications.htm#section_3699). I think you will be impressed with the comprehensiveness of this analysis.  As you know, it is not possible to teach students everything they will need to know in their practice throughout their careers.  The NCLEX Test Plan illustrates the competencies that are important for the practice of novice nurses.  Let’s use them!

Best of luck as you consider ways to ensure your student success on the NCLEX examination.  Please contact Collaborative Momentum Consulting for assistance as you move through this process. We can perform this assessment for you to ensure that your program is aligned with the Test Plan.

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