Why the Drop in the NAPLEX Pass Rates?


This year saw a steep decline in the overall pass rate for the NAPLEX. This may be due to some changes in format, but some unanswered questions remain.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. So goes the old saying, and for more pharmacy students than ever, this is going to be necessary with respect to their 2016 licensing exam. Last year we saw possibly the lowest overall pass rate for the NAPLEX (North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination) ever, dropping to 85% overall, with some very large swings depending on the college of pharmacy attended. There were about 14,000 first-time test-takers among 2016 graduates. Around 2,000 of them will need to take it again. The data comes directly from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).1

What accounts for the lower pass rate?

One strong possibility is the new format of the NAPLEX. For some time we have known about certain changes in the design, specifically that the exam was increasing from 185 to 250 questions. The length of time was also increased from 4.5 to 6 hours. But aside from these changes, not much has been disclosed about the specific nature of the questions. There have been general statements about adding more depth to the clinical assessment and recommendation sections.

What is more interesting about the latest pass rate data is the large difference in success seen between the different schools of pharmacy. Many schools did well, with over 90% of the first-time attempts passing. The University of Washington, for example, had 94 students take the test with a pass rate of 98.94% (presumably just 1 didn’t succeed). But many other schools fared worse, with pass rates below 80% and even below 70% for some. One school with a fairly well-established history had a pass rate of only 64.4% among the 264 first-time test takers last year.

One wonders about these large differences in success rates between the colleges. You might think that newer schools would be at a disadvantage, as they have fewer years of experience with which to work. School size doesn’t seem to be a strong factor either. University of Florida had 263 first-time takers with a fantastic pass rate of 94%. A smaller college with just 65 takers had a pass rate was only 75%.

I suppose it is possible that some schools may be accepting and passing students that are not really academically qualified for the rigors of the NAPLEX exam. Maybe the new format caught some schools by surprise. Whatever the reason, I have no doubt that those schools who performed more poorly will be making some adjustments to their curriculum in the months ahead.

For pharmacists concerned about the job market, it is interesting to see how the total number of test-takers has risen over the years. In 2006, there was just over 9,000 national attempts. In 2016 there over 15,500 attempts. Although the pass rate dropped and only about 13,240 new pharmacists were licensed (assuming they passed their respective state law exams), this number was not a decrease in new pharmacists for the profession over previous years.

As a pharmacist concerned about the quality of our educational programs, and one who has the privilege of serving as a preceptor as well, I will admit that the overall drop in pass rates gives me something to think about. We all have a responsibility to train the next generation of pharmacists well, for whatever career path they ultimately choose. For those who worked hard, studied well, but did not pass the exam, I sincerely encourage you to try, try again.


1. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. NAPLEX 2016 Pass Rates. NABP website.

https://nabp.pharmacy/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2016-NAPLEX-Pass-Rates.pdf. Accessed September 12, 2017.

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