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State approval of Brenau nursing program is 'conditional'
Dina Hewett, director of Brenau University’s school of nursing, shows off one of the school’s simulation labs. - photo by Nick Dentamaro

Georgia Board of Nursing pass rates

Brenau University first-time candidates
2010: 76 percent
2011: 75.3 percent
2012: 86.1 percent
2013: 73.24 percent
Four-year average: 77.66 percent

Although Brenau University now boasts three doctoral programs, including a doctorate of nursing practice, the nursing program’s state approval is “conditional.”

The Georgia Board of Nursing requires a current four-year average pass rate of 80 percent from first-time board test takers, according to Dina Hewett, school of nursing director.

“The board looks at a four-year rolling average of first-time success taking the NCLEX-RN, or the test you take when you graduate from nursing school to become a registered nurse,” Hewett said.

Brenau’s four-year average from 2010 to 2013 was 77.66 percent.

The nursing department requires national accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, both of which are not in question. However, approval from the state board is conditional due to the subpar board passing rates.

“Our accreditation has never been in question, ever,” said Gale Starich, College of Health Sciences dean. “In nursing, we have an additional layer of approval that is all managed through the Secretary of State’s office. So all nursing programs are required to have board of nursing approval.”

Hewett said being on conditional approval means a board representative visits annually to review the program, make suggestions and meet with faculty and students.

“We had a good visit from the Georgia board of nursing back in October,” Hewett said. “... It was a very good review and we have some good things coming out of that.”

Starich said the consultant from the state board does not come simply to examine or judge the program but to help the program improve. She said they “got lucky” with their consultant this year, who happens to be a Brenau alumnus.

Starich also said she has never heard of a school’s approval being revoked entirely because of its pass rate.

According the Secretary of State’s Office, only two nursing schools in the state currently have conditional approval: Brenau and Bauder College.

According to a release from the board in March 2011, the university’s average fell below 80 percent that year, at which time the board imposed conditional approval and asked for a plan of action from the university.

The board will continue to do so and require annual site visits until the average again rises above 80 percent.

Brenau had a 75.3 percent pass rate in 2011. The rate jumped to 86.1 in 2012, but it fell again to 73.24 percent last year.

Starich said they have “analyzed the devil out of this,” and are determining why Brenau nursing graduates struggle when taking the board exam for the first time.

“What we were finding out as we dug into what’s going on is many times our students did not go ahead and take the board exam as soon as they graduated, when all that knowledge was fresh,” Hewett said.

Hewett said one of the challenges of maintaining the 80 percent average is that it only includes first-time board takers. She said Brenau graduates who take the board a second time have a 95 percent pass rate.

Starich said they also determined that the biggest predictor of success on the board exam is excellence in science prerequisites and in the two medical-surgical courses the program offers. These courses focus on taking care of a hospital’s most difficult patients.

To improve the pass rate, the 50-year-old nursing program will focus on aiding students in these areas, and it will take a more technological focus.

“There are always some surprises, or very strong students who don’t do well the first time,” Starich said. “That speaks to the psychological aspect of taking high-stakes, computerized testing.”

This year, the university imbedded new NCLEX-style testing in every nursing class to prepare students for the environment in which they will take the board exam. It also constructed a state-of-the-art computer lab in the nursing school, and instituted a program to help students deal with the stress of high-stakes testing.

“Once you hit the panic button, your brain just kind of empties,” Starich said. “So we had a nice pilot program this fall with about 40 students to address that.”

Hewett said the efforts this year have helped already, and officials expect the 2014 pass rate to be close to 83 percent. That would put the four-year average at 79.41 percent, still just below the necessary score.

“The 73 percent last year hurt us,” Starich said. “But we will come back from it.”

David Morrison, vice president of communications, said the state’s high demand for health care professionals has helped motivate the administration to see its students improve.

“Brenau nursing graduates historically get jobs when they graduate at the rate of almost 100 percent, and that’s a function of the reputation of the school, which is very, very good,” Morrison said. “Still, even though we’re significantly above the exam pass rate this year, we’ll be working harder even to improve.”

Hewett said while it is important to the university to improve the state board passing rates from their graduates, it is actually not the No. 1 priority.

“Beyond all that, we want to produce an excellent nurse,” Hewett said. “We want to ensure we are producing a nurse that is ready to take care of patients amid all the challenges that hospitals have. They need to be knowledgeable and ready to hit the ground running.

“That’s what we’re focusing on.”