As you have likely heard by now, beginning January 1, 2012, the NBDE Part I will no longer be reported as a numerical score. Rather, students will only receive notice whether they have passed or failed. For the dental students who obsess over rankings and comparisons, where they stand relative to others will remain shrouded in a maddening cloud of mystery. Students who have no desire to specialize after graduating may be wondering if the new grading system will have any effect on them (answer: no). This leaves the group of students planning to apply to specialty programs, programs which often take NBDE Part I scores into heavy consideration when selecting applicants for admission.
Essentially, the questions will be exactly the same. The pass/fail point will be exactly the same (a score of 75+ constitutes passing). So why make the switch and ruffle up a system that has been in place for years?
The answer seems to be two-fold. The official purpose of NBDE is to assist state dental boards in making valid licensing decisions. Basically, you need to pass the Boards before you can work with patients. However, outside parties frequently use board scores outside of their intended purpose (i.e. to assess applicants for graduate programs, to judge competence of faculty in teaching students, etc). The Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE) “had concerns about the use of scores for a variety of purposes, for which there is little, if any, validity/evidence, e.g., ranking dental schools, faculty evaluations, and uses as an admissions tool.” Further, when it comes to using board scores to evaluate applicants for specialty programs, “the Joint Commission is confident that there is little measurement error at the minimum passing point, but the error increases slightly as the scores depart from that point. This means for example that there is no guarantee that there is a difference in the knowledge and ability of the candidate who achieves an 89 and the candidate who achieves a 90.” According to this information, other than a pass or a fail, NBDE Part 1 scores appear to be without meaning. Until a validated, standardized exam is created, it may not necessarily be fair to use NBDE scores in evaluating a candidate for admission to a graduate program.
Additionally, the JCNDE is concerned about student overexposure to the board exam and maintaining the integrity of the exams. From 2003-2009, about 2,046 candidates who passed the NBDE Part I chose to retest in an attempt to increase their score. Due to the competitive nature of the specialty programs and the emphasize placed on board scores, students might be motivated to obtain and share unreleased exam content by memorizing and distributing exam questions or engaging in other unethical behavior. By changing the boards to pass/fail, student exposure to exam questions will thus be limited.
While the JCNDE’s decision makes sense from their perspective, it leaves many students wondering how specialty programs will evaluate students for admission. While the NBDE may not be perfect, the fact that each student is tested and obtains a numerical score appears to be the most objective piece of information admissions committee have to evaluate their applicants. With many dental schools using a pass/fail grading system, no class ranking or letter grades corresponding to different raw scores, the NBDE part I seems to be the only way to fairly compare students across dental schools.
If one thing is clear, grades, letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities/volunteer work will play even more important roles than before in a student’s application. It would be much more reassuring if there was a clear plan in place to determine how specialty programs will now evaluate applicants. Right now, everyone seems to be in the dark. Will a new, standardized and validated exam eventually be administered to students planning to specialize, forcing students to study yet again for a standardized test? And with the changes taking place this testing cycle, will it be beneficial to take the boards before January to guarantee a numerical score, or will you be looked at as “lazy” if you choose to take them as pass/fail after the changes are implemented?
As if dental students preparing for the boards needed something else to stress about…
What do you think about the boards becoming pass/fail? How do you think specialty programs will respond during this transition period?
~ Eddie Wysocki, Tufts ’14, ASDA Administrative Extern