More than a thousand students, all hoping to become pharmacists, say they're being held back and losing job offers after a cheating scandal, and they're criticizing the way the California State Board of Pharmacy handled the investigation.
Students took the state board exam, but after the board suspected widespread cheating, they invalidated all students' results.
"They're going to lose a lot of pharmacists working in the field," Dema Askar said.
Askar said she studied for a year to pass her state pharmacology board exam only to learn all 1,400 tests, including hers, were being disqualified. The test is not easy — 48.9% of those taking the CPJE passed the exam, according to results from Oct. 2018 through March 2019, meaning slightly less than half succeeded.
Some students are wondering why it took so long to reach a decision to invalidate the tests.
Some have had job offers that fell through, because while they are able to work as pharmacy interns, they can't work without a license. The decision came through Oct. 11, while some students assert cheating had been reported around June and July.
Bob DaVila, the spokesman for the board, said what they believed was an isolated cheating incident was discovered in July.
It wasn't until September that they learned the scope of the cheating was in fact widespread. They launched an investigation, and by October, they determined the only way to be sure all test takers had not cheated was to invalidate all tests.
"This is a terrible situation, but we want to emphasize that this is not the board's doing — this is the result of what the cheaters have done," DaVila said. "Our primary mission is to protect consumers, as we are a consumer protection agency. We have to ensure all pharmacists who are licensed in California are competent."
On their website, state officials say they found test applicants had been caught "removing and sharing exam questions" while taking the California Practice Standards and Jurisprudence Examination for Pharmacists (CPJE). When they determined this, they refused to release any test scores, and students were left in limbo.
On Oct. 16, the board announced that some 100 questions were shared across web-based platforms.
"As a result of the significant public exposure of the test questions, those questions no longer validly measure applicants' knowledge, skills, and ability to safely practice as pharmacists," the site reads.
Some students who wrote into NBCLA say they have around $270,000 in student loan debt, and while they can work as interns for $18 per hour, they can't afford the student loan payments at that rate. Average pay for licensed pharmacists in 2018 was $60 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Steve Nassar was infuriated.
"They could have stopped, but continued to test," he said.
DaVila said he wasn't aware of any exams that had continued to be issued in September, but couldn't rule it out entirely.
The CPJE exam is one of two required to become a licensed pharmacist in California. The other is a nationwide test. DaVila said this the first time they have invalidated every test in a batch.
"I support them by doing the investigation...but they don't have any names. So we are innocent and have to go through this?" Askar said.
Askar came to California from Syria where she was already a pharmacist. But she needs a California license to practice in the state.
Steve Nassar said he must continue as a pharmacy intern for a fraction of the pay until he has a license, which has been delayed. He says the board didn't communicate enough. He took the test in July and has since lost job offers.
"My student loans are about to kick in," he said. "I'm struggling."
Those who didn't cheat call the blanket decision unfair.
"Who can guarantee that the questions for the next test-takers won't be leaked again?" Askar said.
The board is looking into ways to prevent cheating in the future, as it's clear that changes have to be made, but didn't have any concrete solutions to offer immediately.
"Our main focus is helping students who need to retake the test move on with their lives," DaVila said. "We understand just how much this has disrupted their lives. What we can do now is make sure they get tested."
State officials said if there are students who want to retake that test, they can, beginning next month. Fees will be waived.
"We understand and regret the hardship that invalidating CPJE scores has caused for pharmacist candidates. This has also been a difficult process for the board," the board wrote in a statement. "However, as a state consumer protection agency, the board's priority is to ensure applicants can reliably demonstrate they possess the proper knowledge, training and skill necessary to provide competent pharmacy care for California consumers."
The board says applicants should have received information on how to schedule the test for Nov. 16 and 17, 2019. Anyone unable to retake the test on these days will need to reapply when the next time slot is available.