NBDE Part I Failure Rate Much Higher in 2017

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The Joint Commision of National Dental Examiners (JCNDE) recently released an updated version of their annual report on the National Board Dental Examinations (NBDE).

As many suspected, the NBDE part I failure rate increased dramatically in 2017. In fact, the overall failure rate for first-time candidates from accredited dental programs increased by more than 100%, from 5.2% in 2016 to 10.6% in 2017!

Although the NBDE part I saw a dramatic increase in the overall failure rate, the NBDE part II decreased from an 8.7% failure rate in 2016 to 8.3% in 2017. Both exams were updated in the fourth quarter of 2016 to reflect updated standards. This is expected to be the last major update to either part of the NBDE until the INBDE is released in August, 2020.

Who sets the standards?

The standards for each NBDE are established through a process called “standard setting.” The standard setting process was most recently completed by Dr. Gregory Cizek, a nationally recognized expert and author of several books on the subject of standard setting.

The standard for each examination is theoretically the same for all candidates in a given program. Equating procedures are used to to control for subtle differences in difficulty between varying examinations.

According to the JCNDE:

All candidates who demonstrate the necessary skill level through their examination performance will pass the examination (it is NOT the case that scoring is established to fail a certain percentage of examinees).

The JCNDE also says that the NBDE is not graded on a curve. Rather, subject matter experts “identify standards following established procedures and criteria that reference specific skill-level requirements.

The NBDE is not a diagnostic exam

The JCNDE makes it clear that the NBDE board exams are not intended as diagnostic exams. They are meant for use by state dental boards when deciding whom to license. Nonetheless, the JCNDE has taken measures to improve diagnostic feedback to test-takers and dental school administrators this year.

A new electronic scoring system called DTS Hub was launched in 2016. The new program allows authorized users to electronically approve test applications and obtain official results from examinations. With this new scoring system, dental school deans may:

  • Approve NBDE applications
  • Access NBDE results
  • View and download a historical record of monthly reports, dating back to January 2017
  • View and download a historical record of annual profile reports, dating back to 2013

Because NBDE examinations are not diagnostic in nature, results are only shared with examinees who failed. JCNDE is considering improvements to the current reporting method so that examinees may better understand where they scored relative to other candidates around the country. These changes may be made in June of 2018.

Original NBDE Score Reporting
Original NBDE Score Reporting

Proposed NBDE Score Reporting
Proposed NBDE Score Reporting


How did your school do?

Given the high NBDE part I failure rate in 2017, I doubt many schools will share their statistics for the classes of ’20 and ’19. I know that my school (Midwestern, Arizona) had a fairly high failure rate last year.

As one of a handful of schools in the country that takes the NBDE after our first year, I think our class was more vulnerable to a more difficult standard setting.

We don’t take pharmacology until our second year, so we are mostly unfamiliar with the subject when we take the NBDE. It’s a gamble that I think has worked well in previous years but led to an unprecedented failure rate in 2017.

In previous years our program has had 99% and 100% pass rates for the NBDE part I. I don’t know exactly how many people in my class failed, but I believe that our pass rate dipped below the 90% mark for the first time in our school’s history. You can read about my experience with the NBDE in another article.

I know of a few other programs that had very high failure rates as well. Our school is taking corrective measures to remedy the problem and I suspect that other schools are doing the same.

The JCNDE put together a graph to illustrate how a slight shift in the bell curve at a low-performing school can have a dramatic effect on the failure rate.

NBDE failure rate bell curve

The future of the NBDE

The last administration of the NBDE part I will likely occur on July 31st, 2020. The phase out of the NBDE part II will wrap up by July 31st, 2022. Students entering dental school now will be entering during the transitional phase from the old NBDE exams to the new INBDE.

The first official scored administration of the INBDE will take place in August of 2020. Students taking their board exams during the transition period may still take either the NBDE parts I and II, or the INBDE, but not both.

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Derrik Jones
Derrik Jones
3 years ago

I think the dental boards just want more money. lol