After Poor Test Scores, HCC Blocked From Enrolling New Vocational Nursing Students

One hundred percent of vocational nursing students at Houston Community College passed their licensing exams during the first quarter this year, which ended in March. But that didn't factor into the Texas Board of Nursing's decision April 20 to block HCC from enrolling any more vocational nursing students until pass rates are over 80 percent for the whole year.

In a letter, the Texas Board of Nursing said it was blocking enrollment of new students into HCC's Licensed Vocational Nurse program because for the past three years, from 2014 to 2016, the passing rates of HCC students on the National Council Licensure Examination have consistently been below 80 percent.

In 2014, just 68 percent of vocational nursing students passed, while in 2015 and 2016 the rates went up to around 75 percent.

Dr. Philip Nicotera, president of HCC's Coleman College for Health Sciences, said administrators believe the dip in passage rates can be traced back to an influx of students in 2012-2013 and lax enrollment standards. The Texas Board of Nursing report also notes administrators identified high staff turnover rate and a high number of students failing and repeating the same courses as contributors to the problem.

After 2014's low rates, the standards for admission went up, requiring students to pass a standardized test before being accepted. Once classes started, professors gave more tests intended to identify a student's biggest areas of weaknesses and strengths, helping them to more strategically prepare for the NCLE test as opposed to a "cookie-cutter approach" for everyone, said Dr. Donna Spivey, dean of the college. The administrators say the changes have proven successful, despite this week's sanctions.

"We feel that the corrective measures we put in place are already reaping benefits," Nicotera said. "We saw that we were on a path to improving. Would we have hoped that we would have made 80? Absolutely. We didn't quite make it. But we feel we're on an upward trajectory, not a downward one."

HCC's licensed vocational nursing program will not accept any students through fall 2017; should overall passage rates improve on the exam at the end of the year, Nicotera said, students can begin applying again in 2018.

This isn't the first time the HCC's nursing programs have hit a snag. In January 2016, the Texas Board of Nursing slapped the nursing program with an enrollment ban because of low passing rates in its nursing program, then lifted it in October after passage rates improved again. Last summer, 30 registered nursing students filed a lawsuit against the school, saying administrators withheld the graduation documents they needed in order to take the licensing exam — and in order to get a job. The lawsuit claimed the administrators were blocking the 30 students from taking the test because they feared they wouldn't pass, despite the fact that they had successfully completed HCC's own requirements for graduation. The students dropped the suit after HCC turned over their graduation affidavits — and ultimately passed the exam.

Nicotera said he is not concerned that the latest sanction from the Texas Board of Nursing will deter future students from applying, saying that he expects the progress since 2014 to continue.

"This program has been in existence since 1954 with a tremendous track record," Nicotera said. "A little blip over a 50-year history, I think there still remains a level of confidence."

Correction, 3:22 p.m.: On some references, the licensed vocational nursing program was previously incorrectly referred to as the "nursing program," which is a separate program.