How The NCLEX Works (Part I): Computerized Adaptive Testing

by TheCommuter Asst. Admin

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This article is a direct response to the numerous queries that test-takers have made regarding the the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). The intended purpose of this two-part essay is to discuss how the NCLEX is administered.

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    How The NCLEX Works (Part I): Computerized Adaptive Testing

    The NCLEX is of the utmost importance to your future in the nursing profession. After all, you will not be issued a nursing license anywhere in the United States if you have not taken and passed the NCLEX. And if you do not possess a nursing license, you cannot legally obtain employment as a registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN).

    In other words, your career as a licensed nurse will be placed on hold until you pass the NCLEX. Therefore, it is important to find out as much as possible about this exam before you walk into the testing center. Preparation is the key to conquering the NCLEX.

    Computerized adaptive testing (CAT) is the manner in which the NCLEX is currently administered. Computerized adaptive testing adapts to each test-taker's unique ability level by coming up with the next test question based how you have performed on preceding questions. Therefore, no two NCLEX exams are exactly alike since we all arrive at the testing center with very different knowledge bases.

    For instance, the test-taker who does well on a group of low-level questions will start receiving medium-level test questions. If the test-taker performs well on the medium-level questions, the computer will adapt to the person's ability level and start administering high level questions. On the other hand, if the test-taker answers too many of the medium-level questions incorrectly, the computer adapts by administering some low-level questions.

    The computerized adaptive test is continuously trying to discover the true ability level of the test-taker. In a nutshell, the computer is continually adapting to the individual test-taker by analyzing how he/she is answering previous test questions. The computer stops the test once the performance at a certain level is demonstrated to be the test-taker's highest ability level.

    Therefore, if you keep receiving test questions after you have already answered 200 questions, it is because the computerized adaptive test has not yet determined your ability level. If the test ends after you have answered less than 100 questions, it is because the computerized adaptive test quickly determined your ability level. People who take the NCLEX-RN may receive anywhere from 75 to 265 questions, and those who take the NCLEX-PN may answer anywhere from 85 to 205 questions.

    People can and do pass NCLEX after having received 200+ questions. These test-takers were given so many questions because the computer took longer to establish a passing standard. In addition, people can and do fail NCLEX after having received less than 100 questions because the computerized adaptive test swiftly determined that way too many medium-level and high-level questions were being answered incorrectly during that testing session.

    Think of computerized adaptive testing as a virtual balancing beam. If you answer too many questions incorrectly in a brief time period, the beam will tilt to the left and you will fail. If you correctly answer many questions in a short period of time, the beam will tilt to the right and you will pass. If you answer some questions correctly and then proceed to answer some questions incorrectly, the beam will basically stay in the same spot throughout the exam, which means that you could be answering 200+ questions before the computerized adaptive test shuts off.
    Last edit by Joe V on Jun 26, '12
    josho, keepmovingrn, Catzilla, and 6 others like this.
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  4. About TheCommuter

    TheCommuter is a moderator of allnurses.com and has varied experiences upon which to draw for her articles. She was an LPN/LVN for more than four years prior to becoming a registered nurse.

    TheCommuter joined Feb '05 - from 'Fort Worth, Texas, USA'. Age: 33 TheCommuter has '8' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'acute rehab, long term care, and psych'. Posts: 26,458 Likes: 36,513; Learn more about TheCommuter by visiting their allnursesPage Website


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    12 Comments so far...

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    I love the virtual balancing beam analogy. It all makes sense now. Thanks!!
    TheCommuter likes this.
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    if you answer too many questions incorrectly in a brief time period, the beam will tilt to the left and you will fail. if you correctly answer many questions in a short period of time, the beam will tilt to the right and you will pass. if you answer some questions correctly and then proceed to answer some questions incorrectly, the beam will basically stay in the same spot throughout the exam, which means that you could be answering 200+ questions before the computerized adaptive test shuts off.

    notice the word "time" in this last paragraph. this is something no one explains or gives much thought but there is a very important component which involves time in the nclex. i think is absolutely imperative that you answer all questions in less the one minute. if you spend say 4 minutes in one question even though answer it correctly the test will give you the same question again and again until you answer it fast. the nclex is testing your ability in answer questions you know little about and need to make a quick decision drawing a conclusion from how many of these do you answer correctly and how much time do you spend overall. having said that you must approach the nclex not as a regular test where you are scoring high correct answers but how quickly you can shoot them down and how many you get it right but with a caveat: questions you get right using too much time have less value so speed is at the core. so the rule of thumb is: you have 59 seconds to come up with your best answer by eliminating the least correct letters but if you don't know just stab at random and move on. you will not know all the answers no one does.
    josho and Red35 like this.
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    Quote from marcos9999
    notice the word "time" in this last paragraph. this is something no one explains or gives much thought but there is a very important component which involves time in the nclex.
    i also failed to make any mention in the article about time limits for the nclex.

    nclex-pn test-takers have a 5-hour time limit to complete the test, whereas those taking nclex-rn have 6 hours to complete the exam.
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    Yes, 6 hours for NCLEX RN so if you go all the way say have to answer all 265 questions do the math 265 / (6 (60)) = 265 / 360 min. = 0.74 . So you don't even have one minute per question but only a little less then 3/4 of a minute.
    josho likes this.
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    Wow this was absolutely helpful! Especially about the time part! Thanks!
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    Thank you so much for this valuable information.

    I have heard conflicting information about the following: some people make claims that during each session, at least one person will get a 265 test, regardless of the student's performance but as a means to 'test' the system. Then I have also heard that this is not true. Could anyone shed light on this?
  11. 1
    Quote from Sue2
    Thank you so much for this valuable information.

    I have heard conflicting information about the following: some people make claims that during each session, at least one person will get a 265 test, regardless of the student's performance but as a means to 'test' the system. Then I have also heard that this is not true. Could anyone shed light on this?
    On NCSBN facebook page, NCSBN claimed that this is a myth. It is not true that some people are randomly picked to answer 265 questions.
    josho likes this.
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    Quote from marcos9999
    Yes, 6 hours for NCLEX RN so if you go all the way say have to answer all 265 questions do the math 265 / (6 (60)) = 265 / 360 min. = 0.74 . So you don't even have one minute per question but only a little less then 3/4 of a minute.
    Sorry but my math sucked here: is 360/265 = 1.4 so you have close to a minute and a half for each question.
  13. 0
    Quote from Sue2
    I have heard conflicting information about the following: some people make claims that during each session, at least one person will get a 265 test, regardless of the student's performance but as a means to 'test' the system. Then I have also heard that this is not true. Could anyone shed light on this?
    I did some searching and found that the NCLEX-RN always has 15 sample questions that are not scored, while the NCLEX-PN has 25 sample questions that are not scored.
    Out of these questions, 25 questions on the NCLEX PN test are pretest questions, which are not scored. On the NCLEX RN test, 15 questions will also be pretest questions. All questions that are presented must be answered, and candidates are instructed to make their best guess if they do not know the answer to a particular test item.
    NCLEX Test Practice Questions - Help your NCLEX Exam Score with free NCLEX Test Preparation


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