The NCLEX exam is the licensure exam needed all nursing students in the United States must take if they wish to practice as a registered nurse or a licensed practical nurse (aka licensed vocational nurse).

The NCLEX is unlike any other exam most students take hence the confusion around how the test is scored.

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How is the NCLEX Scored?

The NCLEX is a computer adaptive test. Students receive questions based on how they’re doing. They keep getting questions until it can be determined with 95% confidence that if a student keeps getting questions, they will stay above (PASS) or below (FAIL) the predetermined passing level.

Please note that this format is how both the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN tests are scored.

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What’s the NCLEX Test Format?

The NCLEX exam is administered throughout the United States in designated Pearson Vue testing centers. The test is computerized, but you need to complete it personally in one of those test venues. 

Most questions follow a multiple-choice style, but the question format can also include drag and drop options, labeling a diagram, or filling in a word in a blank space to make a statement correct. 

The questions cover four broad classifications of nursing competencies:

  • Provision of a safe and effective care environment
  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Psychosocial integrity
  • Physiological integrity

These topics ensure that just about every important area of your nursing education is covered.

Related: What Are Considered Higher-Level Questions on the NCLEX?

Why Does NCLEX Use Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT)?

The CAT program is designed to achieve quicker and more accurate results. It eliminates human error from the assessment, and all candidates have an equal chance of passing the test.

The way you answer the questions determines the type and difficulty of the following questions. 

It means that each person’s test is individualized, and nobody has any advantage when taking the test. Even if not all candidates taking the exam are academically strong.

The design of the CAT program is such that it takes away academic bias.

The academically strong candidates will see questions that match their knowledge level, and the academically not as strong candidates will answer easier questions.

Still, the difficulty level of those easier questions meets the required minimum set standard. 

The complexity of the questions seen by the candidate is measured against a set standard to ensure that the level of knowledge required to answer correctly is sufficient to make you a safe nurse. 

As you progress through the test, each correct answer determines how complex the next question will be, as determined by the CAT program.

You will have at least a 50% chance of answering the question correctly. 

To pass the test, you have to answer at least 75 questions correctly at or above the standard. If you only answer questions below the standard, you will fail the test.

How Does CAT Work?

The computer program chooses questions for you to answer.

If you answer correctly, the following question will be more challenging to see if you get that answer correct.

If you answer incorrectly, the computer gives you an easier question to see if you get that right.

Each time you answer, the computer estimates your ability by considering the previously answered question and its difficulty level.

Rinse and Repeat

The Computer Keeps Collecting Data

Each question and answer gives the program more information to predict your nursing ability confidently.

The computer collects more information about your true ability level by tracking your answers.

The computer then selects the next question, giving you a 50% chance of getting it correctly.

If you answer that correctly, the computer becomes more confident about your ability to provide correct answers and follows that question with an even more difficult question until you give an incorrect answer.

At that time, the computer will give you an easier question to answer.

This process keeps happening until one of 3 rules goes into effect.

The 3 Rules For Passing the NCLEX

stressed student in nursing school

CAT assesses each candidate’s pass (or fail) result by following these 3 rules.

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1. 95% Confidence Interval Rule

The 95% Confidence Interval Rule is based on the program’s ability to determine if the questions you answered correctly meet the minimum standard required to pass the test.

The computer needs to be 95% confident that your ability lies above or below the passing standard.

The test continues until such a point as the computer can predict your ability with at least 95% certainty.

The test will simply stop once the computer reaches a 95% confidence level.

Please Note:
The exam will stop regardless of whether the computer feels your ability is above the minimum standard or below.

So, if your test stops early, it does not automatically mean you passed. 

The 95% confidence rule doesn’t come into play until you’ve answered the minimum number of questions.

As of this time, the minimum NCLEX question you need to answer is 75.

2. Maximum-Length Exam Rule

The maximum-length exam rule comes into play when the computer is unsure whether your ability lies below or above the passing standard.

Once you have answered the maximum number of questions, the computer will estimate your ability, regardless if it is 95% certain.

If that estimation is above the passing line, you pass. If it’s below the passing line, you fail.

3. Run-Out-Of-Time (R.O.OT.) Rule

This rule applies when you run out of time before the test has been completed, but you have answered at least the minimum number of questions.

If the computer can not establish with 95% certainty whether your ability lies above or below the passing standard, it will consider the last 60 questions you have answered.

If in the last 60 questions, your ability stayed consistently above the passing standard, you will pass.

However, you will fail if the computer’s performance estimation is below the passing standard.

If you run out of time and do not answer the required minimum number of questions, you will fail.

Key Takeaways

The NCLEX exam is the one exam all nurses must pass to obtain their nursing license.

Scientific research and computer adaptive testing methods ensure that the test is fair to all candidates and truly reflects your ability.

Passing the exam demonstrates your readiness to begin your nursing career. 

NCLEX Prep Academy

Check out the comprehensive NCLEX prep review that I recommend. Don’t bother with other NCLEX preps that over promise and under deliver. Did I mention they have a 99.86% NCLEX pass rate?

Have You Read These?

Frequently Asked Questions

The NCLEX RN exam and the NCLEX PN exam are written by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing

The NCLEX stands for the National Council Licensure Examination.

You have to answer at least 75 questions on the NCLEX to have a chance of passing. Outside of that, it will depend on how you’re doing on the exam.

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