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How is the NCLEX Scored - in Common English?

How is the NCLEX scored?

So the NCLEX is actually an incredible test. The academics and statistics behind how it scores is well-researched and very valid. It is also pretty complex. Let me try to explain...

Firstly, be assured that your test is scored twice. The computer where you take your test scores it and then Pearson Vue - the company that runs the test, scores it again. Just in case.

Most of us are used to going into a test and everyone gets the exact same test. Often, questions are multiple choice, short answer, matching, or essay. The issue with this, is it doesn't give you any information but a basic average. Those with low ability can often guess on questions and perform better than their actual comprehension. Those with high ability often aren't really challenged or scored correctly. A teacher can tell that they test "above average" but are not really sure how much they really know. In short, this type of test only tells you if you know about or more than the baseline concepts.

The NCLEX doesn't score like a percentage test. If you get 80% on a test, that tells you where you fall on the grading scale the teacher sets. Typically, that means that you are within the top 20th percentage of the class and that 80th percent are below your score. Not so with the NCLEX.

The NCLEX uses Computerized Adaptive Testing or CAT to give you the test and score it. As you answer questions on the computer, the computer adjusts and recalculates your ability. Each question that it gives you, you should have a 50% chance of answering correctly based off of your constantly recalculating ability score. At the end of the exam, it is able to precisely score how able you are. You either score above the passing ability standard and "pass" the NCLEX. Or you score below the passing ability standard and "fail" the NCLEX.

Passing standards are set by the NCSBN board for both the PN and RN test and can change every 3 years. Each candidate must prove that they score above the passing standard. There is no percentage set that are above or below the passing standard. In short, everyone could take the NCLEX and fail if they scored below the passing standard. You are alone testing your own knowledge against a statistical standard of practice, not against the other people taking the test.

The computer stops in three cases:

1. It is 95% certain that you are clearly above or below the passing ability standard. It must give you around 75 questions (for the RN) and 85 questions (for the PN) to reach this amount. This means that if you have gotten at least 80% of the the minimum 75 questions correct then the test will stop and you have passed.

2. If you are close to the passing standard, then the computer will keep administering questions up to the maximum length of the exam. The max length for the RN test is 265 questions; the PN test is 205 questions. At the end of the final question than it will calculate your final ability estimate and pass/fail you based on if that is higher or lower than the passing standard.

3. If you take the entire testing time (6 hours for the RN and 5 hours for the PN), than the computer will shut off. If you have not answered at least the minimum number of items, then you will fail. If you have passed that mark, then the computer looks at the last 60 ability estimates. If those are consistently above the standard, then you pass. If the majority of those are below the standard, then you fail

Because the NCLEX is adaptive, there are a couple of testing strategies that you do not want to try.

Do NOT blindly, rapidly guess. If you do and get a question wrong, then the next question will be easier and if you get it wrong as well because you are quickly guessing - then you will lower your ability score.

Do NOT quickly pick the answer without reading the whole question. NCLEX test writers are smart and know how to distract you.

Do NOT go at a snail's pace. If you have to do every question on the test - you might have 1 minute per question. So do not spend 10 minutes on a question you cannot figure out. If you really don't know it, then guess and move on. Your time is valuable.

Do NOT panic! Whether your test ends at 75 or 150 questions does not necessarily predict a pass or fail. Many nurses require repeat testing and it is not uncommon to fail on your first try. Do your best to be prepared and use smart test-taking strategies like those found on our blog. Good luck!

Hope this helps,

Nurse Amy