Testing culture

Profiting from test leaks is probably as old as testing itself.  Advances in the technology of retrieval and duplication of information, coupled with the heightened competitiveness in almost all professions, may have made resort to it easier and more tempting.  Even so, we may assume that the methods and principles for preventing it and managing its effects have also been refined over time.  What is most amazing about the current nursing board exam fiasco is the thoughtless response that seems to characterize its handling.

On July 17, the Professional Regulation Commission—Board of Nursing (PRC-BON) issued a resolution that nullified the scores in 110 of the 500 test questions in the 2006 nursing board exams.  This was its knee-jerk response to the finding that there has been a leak in those areas covered by these questions.  Since most of the excluded items pertain to neuro-psychiatric nursing, the resolution assumes either that the area is not that crucial, or that level of competence in that area may be deduced from an examinee’s performance in the other areas.  It’s the easy way out because it does not distinguish between those who profited from the leak and those who did not.  It does not lift the stigma from the 2006 takers.

No less inconsiderate is the recommendation of the recently-formed Presidential Task Force which seeks the invalidation of the results in the two disputed subjects of the 2006 nursing licensure examination, and the retake of the test in these two areas.  Not even the offer that the government will foot the bill for the new round of exams can diminish the anguish of those who took and passed the examination by honest means.  Many contingencies shape one’s performance in any exam.  Anyone who has ever taken a difficult test knows that psychological preparedness on test day itself and luck can spell the difference between passing and failing.  That is why I fully sympathize with those who are aggrieved by the blanket nullification of exam results in those areas tainted by the leaks.

Dante Ang, who heads the Malacanang task force as well as the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, rightly worries that the scandal may affect the credibility of Philippine nurses and, perhaps their marketability abroad. But the solution to this problem cannot just possibly lie in the indiscriminate cancellation of disputed results.  It has to begin with measured steps that seek to protect the interests of the legitimate passers while preserving the overall integrity of the exams.  What might these be?

First, try to isolate those examinees who most likely made it entirely on their own from those who most probably passed because they were aided by the leak.  We may reasonably assume that those whose grades in the tainted subjects do not greatly deviate from their scores in the other subjects very likely passed on their own.  I am not an expert, but I am aware that there are simple statistical methods for determining this.  A computer program can go through the scores of all the examinees and quickly identify those who register suspicious spikes in their scores in those two contaminated subjects.  The names of these examinees can then be compared with the names of those in the list of the review centers where the leaked questions were supposed to have been disseminated.  When there is a match, a retake should be strongly considered. The resulting list can be further refined and trimmed down by determining who among the examinees in this list registered the greatest similarity of right and wrong answers in the two disputed subjects. It is they who must be required to retake the whole examination.  In this manner, we do not stigmatize and penalize everybody for the sins of a few.

Second, get to the bottom of this leak. A couple of brave examinees have already come forward to volunteer what they know.

Investigators must pick up the trail from there and follow it to where it leads.  Let us not forget that a terrible crime has been committed here, as a result of which a great injustice hangs over the head of those who legitimately passed the exams. Left hanging, this issue will only aggravate the moral indifference that already afflicts our society.

Third, and finally, review the whole system of professional eligibility examinations, with particular attention to its present vulnerabilities. Such a study could take a look into the following:  (1) the wisdom of appointing examiners who are also lecturers at review centers; (2) the proliferation of independent review centers that are not subject to any form of regulation by relevant authorities; (3) the knowledgeability of the examiners – not just in the subjects assigned to them but also in the whole science of preparing test questions; (4) the adequacy of existing test banks – in particular, the extent to which these are regularly revisited, evaluated, and replenished.

In pursuing the needed reforms, we should not be blind to the subtle dangers posed by excessive fixation on tests. When the knowledge that schools impart to their students becomes primarily geared to passing licensure exams, they often forget to teach what is essential to the thoughtful practice of a profession.  But perhaps there is an even more basic lesson here.  When entrepreneurs build a whole profitable industry around one profession, like nursing, the distortion it brings not only exacerbates the defects of our educational system, it tests the integrity of our whole culture.

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