The company employed by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians to run its botched fellowship examination is known as a “budget” option and has been involved in dozens of testing mishaps over the past two decades, a US exam watchdog says.
The contractor, Pearson VUE, is yet to explain the "unknown technical fault" that locked registrars out of Monday's five-hour test, causing chaos, tears, and the exam's eventual abandonment.
Yet Monday was just the latest instance of the company’s examination systems causing problems.
The UK-based multinational has been involved in more than 70 testing mishaps worldwide over the past 20 years, according to the US National Centre for Fair and Open Testing (NCFOT).
This week's RACP bungle sits at number 74 on the non-profit watchdog’s public list of Pearson exam failures, which stretch back to 1998 and have been widely documented in the press.
NCFOT's public education director Robert Schaeffer says the company has aggressively expanded since the early 2000s by offering "budget" computerised testing.
In 2015, Pearson was responsible for up to 40% of US secondary examinations. But the firm has been fired by the country’s four most populous states in the past five years because of its repeated failures, Mr Shaeffer told Australian Doctor on Thursday.
“This latest failure doesn’t surprise me at all," he said.
"Pearson does not seem to be able to deliver high-quality, consistently accurate assessments.
"It is easy to see online that Pearson has a very poor track record of performance."
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1:00AM February 24, 2018
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians had engaged the company Pearson Vue to conduct its divisional written examination across multiple sites via computers on Monday.
But several hours into the exam a problem was detected at some sites and, although many trainees were urged to continue, the exam ultimately was cancelled.
The computer failure not only had implications for trainees — concerns for their mental health have been paramount this week — but is likely to have ongoing ramifications for the RACP and Pearson Vue. Similar incidents in the past have ended up in the courts.
The divisional written examination tests a trainee’s knowledge in adult internal medicine or pediatrics and child health at the end of basic training.
This assessment, completed before trainees undertake the divisional clinical examination, is the gateway for progression to advanced training.
Not only does the exam cost each trainee about $1800, it requires months of study and in some cases logistical work for the junior doctors to be able to set aside the six-plus hours needed just to sit the test.
Every trainee is photographed, required to provide proof of identification and their signature, and put under strict supervision during the exam.
The computer failure also comes after considerable debate in the professions about the pressure medical students, trainees and junior doctors are under, and the impact on their psychological wellbeing. The RACP previously has acknowledged the potential for trainees to have increased anxiety undertaking a computer-based exam for the first time.