A new U.S.-based licensing exam for nurses continues to confound some Nova Scotia graduates, but the overall pass rate is inching toward what it was during the years of traditional testing.

During the first half of 2015, the 254 nurses who studied in Nova Scotia and took the NCLEX-RN exam had an 80.7 per cent pass rate. The complete 2015 results, released Thursday, show the pass rate is 89.1 per cent.

That change in the pass rate is, in part, because some took the test multiple times — and eventually passed.

Health Minister Leo Glavine is heartened by the change in the pass rate.

"We've done exceptionally well," he said Thursday. "We're the third highest pass rate in the country."

393 nursing grads took exam last year

The new U.S.-based licensing exam was introduced last year in every province except Quebec. In preliminary results released six months ago, Nova Scotia's pass rate was the fourth highest behind the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia.

According to the full year of test results, Nova Scotia was third in the overall success rate behind Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories and Nuvavut.

Nursing graduates have up to three chances to take the exam in order to get a passing mark. In all, 393 Nova Scotia nursing grads took the exam last year.

  • Of the 393 students who took the test last year, 298 passed on their first try.
  • Of the 95 students who failed their first test, 82 tried a second time. Of those, 50 students passed.
  • Of the 32 students who failed their second test, 4 tried a third time. Of those, 2 students passed.

The two students who failed the test three times cannot obtain a nursing licence.

Unlike a paper-based test, the computer-assisted NCLEX-RN — developed by the nursing licensing body in the United States — includes multiple choice questions as well as the use of graphs, video and audio clips.

The test is not only more interactive, it's designed to offer harder or easier questions based on how the student is performing as they progress through the exam.

Nova Scotia students had consistently been getting better at the old test before it was switched to the NCLEX-RN.

Nursing union concerned

Janet Hazelton, the president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, did not share the Glavine's enthusiasm for the exam results. She said the test is "absolutely" flawed.

She's worried about graduates who completed their four-year degree and did not pass the test. Those who do not pass are not able to work unsupervised until they do.

Hazelton called it unacceptable given the province's shortage of nurses and the fact money is tight.

"The have to have another registered nurse monitoring their care, which of course is an expense to the system," she said.

Hazelton's union and others across the country have called for a review of the exam to determine whether it is properly testing the competence of nursing school graduates.