The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the day-to-day lives of nearly all Americans, including students. An ongoing decline in nationwide test scores at all academic levels – from students in K-12 schools to graduates of professional doctoral programs – has largely been attributed to the challenges related to remote learning at the height of the pandemic. Some experts, however, are questioning whether other factors are also at play.  

Test Scores Have Dropped in Recent Years 

Since 2020, the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination® (NAPLEX®) and the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination® (MPJE®) have had a roughly 2%-4% decrease in the passing rates of first-time test takers. Passing rates are posted annually and can be viewed in the Data, and Research section of our website.  

This decline corresponds with similar drops in other professional examinations. Passing rates for the National Council Licensure Examination licensing exam for registered nurses declined for the first time ever, from 88% in 2019 to about 81% in 2022. Students taking the Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination had a first-time pass rate of 96% in 2019 and 95% in 2021.  

Factors Beyond COVID-19 

While the most obvious cause of these passing rate dips is the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be other factors involved. One possibility is that some schools and colleges of pharmacy have suspended or lowered Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) requirements to boost enrollment to meet an increased demand for pharmacists. Previous research indicated that a high composite PCAT score was one of the strongest predictors of success on the NAPLEX. But at least 12 institutions have discontinued PCAT requirements between the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 admissions cycles. As other schools follow suit, the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy has announced that it will no longer offer the PCAT after January 2024.  

Another possible element may be the revised NAPLEX blueprint that went into effect in January 2021. NABP makes periodic updates to its examination blueprints to ensure that our exams are in line with pharmacy practice standards in a field that has experienced rapid change over the last few decades. A temporary decline in exam scores was noted in 2016 following a significant change to the format of the NAPLEX, which expanded from 185 questions over four-and-a-half hours to 250 questions over six hours. While the decrease in pass rates occurring in 2021 may be similar to those caused by the format change in 2016, the corresponding score declines in other health care licensing examinations suggest that more universal issues, such as the pandemic, have had a greater influence on performance on the NAPLEX and MPJE.  

Study Materials, Pre-Exams Can Help Improve Performance 

Despite downward-trending test scores, candidates for pharmacist licensure can still succeed. They can read the entirety of the examination Bulletin to learn exactly what to expect during the testing process. Also, our research has shown that students who take the Pre-NAPLEX® and Pre-MPJE® have a higher passing rate than those who do not. The practice examinations simulate many of the items candidates can expect during the actual exam, including similar questions and a time limit that encourages efficient work.  

We continually monitor the effectiveness and integrity of our examinations to ensure that they serve the needs of the boards of pharmacy. Want to learn more about NABP exam development? Check out these blogs: 

We will provide any additional information, including updates to examination blueprints and other noteworthy trends in test scores, in future publications. 

This blog was adapted from an article that originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Innovations