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Certified Perfect: MC Nursing, Physician Assistant Students Reach 100-Percent Pass Rate on National Exams

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Dr. Steve Martin, professor, program director, and department chair of Physician Assistant Studies at Mississippi College, and Dr. Lisa Wright Eichelberger, interim dean of the School of Nursing at MC, praised their respective classes for achieving a perfect pass rate on certifying and licensure exams.

Students in the School of Nursing and the Physician Assistant Program at Mississippi College are proving that perfection may be attainable after all.

Earlier this spring, the Mississippi Board of Nursing informed the MC School of Nursing that all 15 students in the December 2023 graduating class achieved a 100-percent pass rate on their first attempt at taking the National Licensure Examination (NCLEX).

“We’re extremely proud of everybody,” said Dr. Lisa Wright Eichelberger, interim dean of the school. “The faculty did a fantastic job preparing the students, and the students took the exam seriously. They prepared for it precisely how our faculty instructed them.”

Not to be outdone, this spring, the 36 students in the Physician Assistant Program scored a 100-percent pass rate on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam – the second consecutive year that physician assistant (PA) students have accomplished a perfect rate.

By comparison, according to Dr. Steve Martin, professor, program director, and department chair of Physician Assistant Studies, the national pass rate this year was 92 percent.

“It’s remarkable to be above the national average,” Martin said. “With a small class size, having only two or three miss the mark can drop your average significantly. The fact that everyone passed the medical boards two years in a row is amazing.”

Although almost all graduating School of Nursing students will eventually go on to pass the NCLEX – a requirement for them to practice as a registered nurse – Eichelberger said it isn’t unusual each semester for one or two students to repeat the exam.

“We’re excited that they all were successful the very first time they took the exam, she said. “Every registered nurse has passed a national licensing examination. The NCLEX is a comprehensive, standardized test that is given to all graduates of a state-approved nursing program.

“The NCLEX is a statistically significant examination in terms of the types of patient populations that a new nurse would be expected to care for. It includes adult patient and pediatric situations, obstetrical situations, ethical and legal situations, and nurse management and leadership situations.”

Because the NCLEX is a national exam and Mississippi belongs to the Nurse Licensure Compact, nurses who pass it are licensed to practice in 41 different states, including Mississippi.

“There are no significant differences to the practice of nursing from one state to another,” Eichelberger said. “A nurse who takes care of a medical-surgical or a diabetic patient in Mississippi would provide the same care for those patients in Alabama or Georgia.”

Rick Lewis, assistant professor in the School of Nursing, wasn’t surprised by the senior students’ spotless record on the exam. He said the school’s entire curriculum emphasizes success on the NCLEX.

“All of the courses the students take are preparatory classes for the NCLEX,” he said. “A professional practice exam instruction class helps them learn how to take tests, and we give them questions on every test that mimic the NCLEX exam structure.

“We also provide a live review of the Health Education Systems Incorporated (HESI) Exam (a standardized practice, review, and exam preparation module authored by Elsevier, a global healthcare research company). A nurse educator from Elsevier Corporation conducts the four-day, six-hours-a-day test review preparation course that covers almost everything the students have studied in the nursing program at MC.”

Eichelberger said the perfect pass rate goes a long way in helping attract quality students to the nursing program at Mississippi College.

“One of the first things any savvy student or parent would want to investigate would be the pass rate for graduates of any school that has a national board,” she said. “It’s important for us to have a strong NCLEX pass rating, and historically, MC’s has been very good.

“We’re always above the national average, and our accreditors require that of us, too.”

Lewis said the class’s perfect NCLEX pass rate reflects the high academic quality of the students who sat for the exam.

“This group of students was an exceptional class,” he said. “They were very eager to learn, they were self-motivated, and they took instruction from faculty. They also successfully passed all of the HESI tests that we gave in preparation for this exam.

“They knew what they wanted to accomplish, set their minds on the goal, and were highly successful.”

Notification of the Physician Assistant students’ 100-percent pass rate comes at a time of a parallel accomplishment and a new transition within the department.

Earlier this spring, ARC-PA, the organization that accredits physician assistant programs in the U.S. and Canada, notified Mississippi College that its PA program has been fully reaccredited for 10 years.

Martin said the successful ARC-PA reaccreditation visit, which took place last fall, helped the program prepare students for the National Certifying Exam.

“Preparing to meet the rigid requirements the ARC-PA set for our reaccreditation helped us tighten some areas that were in need of improvement,” he said. “Also, during the pandemic, students took many of their upper-level science courses online. Exam scores in general were a little lower during that period.

“We made a lot of changes, established a director of student success – Prof. July Kaspersky – who has done a terrific job, and we hired an amazing director of preclinical education – Prof. Rochelle Dye – who implemented many changes. We raised the bar considerably and did quite a bit to make things harder academically, and the students have responded – they are better prepared to meet the challenges of the medical boards and, more importantly, of medical practice.”

Another structural change is on the way: Martin is scheduled to retire on June 1. Dye is set to become only the third director of the Mississippi College program – and the first female leader – since its inception in 2011.

Martin said handing over a program with back-to-back “perfect” National Certifying Exam pass rates won’t be too daunting for his successor. After all, Dye was a major reason the students were able to accomplish the feat.

“I give her a lot of credit, because the preclinical phase is so critical, and she was very aggressive,” Martin said. “She and I worked together to enact quite a few changes when I took over the program five-and-a-half years ago. We made concrete changes that made it a stronger program.

“We’ve developed a very solid team – we haven’t lost a faculty member since 2021 – and it’s dedicated to working for the success of our students. She’s well prepared for the task of leading the program. She’ll be great.”

He said another contributing factor to the PA students’ performance is the department’s intensive process of remediation – helping students improve and make up demonstrated deficits.

“There are some programs that don’t spend much time with remediation,” Martin said. “We created the director of student success position to help with the remediation process. We pride ourselves on being proactive in identifying students at risk early on and helping them to be successful by giving them additional tutoring, if needed, along with other measures.”

Upon graduating from the Mississippi College PA Program, PA students must sit for the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants board-certifying exam, which will allow them to apply for licensure within their chosen state to practice. Success on the PA National Certifying Exam is a strong indicator of good performance on this final test.

Martin said the PA students’ perfect pass rate is a boon to recruitment, too.

“Incoming applicants do look at your board pass rate,” he said. “It’s a very helpful measure – they want to know how much preparation they can expect to get to help ensure their success.

“We’ve seen an uptick in the quality of our applicants as a result. Our reputation is growing, which is a good thing for Mississippi.”

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