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FAMU Pharmacy Students, Parents Worry About Required Exam, Graduation

It's graduation season, but what should be a celebratory moment is not a celebratory moment for Florida A&M University pharmacy students and their parents.

Here's why: If the expected graduating class of FAMU's College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Institute of Public Health (CoPPS IPH) fails a required graduation exam, those students will not receive a degree.

Although pharmacy students who have not yet passed the exam would be able to attend their FAMU graduation ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday at the Al Lawson Center, they would not officially graduate, according to FAMU Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Allyson Watson.

Over 100 participants attended a Zoom meeting on Tuesday, April 23, where students and parents expressed their concerns and fears to Dean Johnnie Early and Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs Jocelyn Spates. Some faculty members and alumni also participated in the call.

“This final exam should not define us as students, and an exam should not stop us from graduating,” said Annaya Morrison, a fourth-year doctoral pharmacy student at FAMU.

At the end of the six-year pharmacy program, pharmacy students must complete a comprehensive 100-question exam to assess their level of competency prior to graduation and achieve a minimum passing score of 75% in accordance with FAMU's comprehensive exam policy.

The college's exam is designed to prepare students for the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX), a standardized test created by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy that qualifies them as licensed pharmacists.

The aspiring pharmacists – 84 testers this year – have five attempts to meet the minimum pass mark on the comprehensive exam, but many of them had difficulty passing the rigorous exam in their first two attempts.

While 12% of the class of 2023-2024 passed the mandatory comprehensive exam on the first attempt, 39% passed on the second attempt.

“We help them to strengthen themselves”

According to Spates, it's not uncommon for the success rate to be low on the first try. The percentage tends to increase until the third attempt, where the pharmacy program had a 95% success rate in 2022.

Early, who has served as dean of the pharmacy school since 2018, says the comprehensive graduation exam has worked for decades, having been administered at FAMU for over 30 years.

“Our end point is not so much the conclusion and the beginning,” said Early, who moderated the virtual meeting. “The metric we look at is passing the licensing exam the first time, so it has become a very useful tool over the decades.”

He explained that the college uses the comprehensive test as a high-stakes exam similar to a capstone and that the five-attempt process to pass it mirrors the five attempts students are given to take the NAPLEX upon graduation consist.

To help students prepare, comprehensive exam study tools from RxPrep, a national consulting firm, were made available to fourth-year graduate students in June 2023, including a coursebook, online videos, and a 3,000-question test bank.

Students also had the opportunity to participate in a three-day virtual review through RxPrep and take a seminar course to prepare. The pharmacy program's NAPLEX pass rate was 70% last year, down from 80% in 2022 and 90% in 2023.

Spates says the college hears from concerned parents and students every year around the time the comprehensive exams are taken.

“Every year we hear from parents and students that we want to get rid of it, but the reality is that if we do that, we’ll see what happens to our results,” Spates said on the Zoom call.

She was referring to the time when the college recorded a 59% initial licensure success rate in 2016, compared to 88% in 2012.

“We need to do this to make sure they are ready for the national exam,” Early said, referring to the comprehensive test. “If we don’t do that, people will experience the stress and anxiety they’re feeling now the next time they take it.”

“This is a challenging exam designed to prepare participants and help them prepare for the actual licensing exam.”

But parents are even more concerned about the toll the required testing is taking on students as they approach the final stretch of the pharmacy program.

“I just think this test that you say is beneficial is actually more of a detriment,” one mother said during the virtual call. “When I look into my child’s eyes, I see the hurt, the hurt and the disappointment, and that’s a big problem for me.”

More “disheartening” concerns from students, parents and trustees

FAMU is not the only university under the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) to conduct a comprehensive exam, as other programs across the country, such as the University of Utah's College of Pharmacy, require students to take the exam pass a similar test upon graduation.

However, Florida does not have comprehensive testing requirements for pharmacy programs at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.

“It is very disheartening that I am being prevented from taking an exam even though I have done everything up to this point to show that I am ready to work as a practicing pharmacist in the pharmaceutical industry,” said fourth-year physician Delpria Hubbard academic year said.

“The university doesn’t care when students start their studies. Instead, it's about the first-time pass rates at NAPLEX. But we cannot be accepted for the NAPLEX exam if we do not graduate.”

As parents spoke one by one, they expressed how “alarming” and “disturbing” the issue was and called on the college to reevaluate the policy.

A father shared that his daughter has a residency permit in place but could lose it if she does not pass the final exam in time to graduate, apply for NAPLEX and take the national exam.

Concerns reach the ears of FAMU trustees

FAMU's Board of Trustees met via Zoom on April 24 for a previously scheduled Special Committee on Academic Affairs meeting that focused on the school of pharmacy.

During the virtual trustees meeting, FAMU President Larry Robinson said he heard part of the pharmacy program's Zoom meeting the day before and “heard the passion and concern about high-stakes testing.”

“The success of our students in pharmacy and all other programs on this campus is our top priority, and it causes me just as much concern and pain when our students do not perform as we want them to,” Robinson said .

FAMU Trustee and Faculty Senate President Jamal Brown, who is also an associate professor of pharmacy practice, supported the students' concerns and expressed that he does not believe it is fair to prevent high-performing pharmacy students from graduating based on their final exam scores .

“These are proud students who have GPAs of 3.7 and 3.8 and have done the work of our program – summa cum laude and magna cum laude students with honor cords around their necks,” Brown said. “How do you stop a student from graduating when the input seemed good but the output isn’t working? We as an institution are somewhere in between.”

A third attempt to take the comprehensive exam was planned for Monday. The success rate of the students has not yet been announced.

“Our process, procedures and decisions regarding the completion of our curriculum remain the same,” Early told students and parents who shared her concerns. “We recognize, understand and sympathize with the stress our learners experience. It’s almost unavoidable, but unfortunately part of the educational learning process.”

Contact Tarah Jean at [email protected] or follow her on X: @tarahjean_.

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