Number of NAVLE test takers increase as overall scores decrease

In response, ICVA implementing a new retake policy and introducing additional testing windows

Updated March 12, 2024

Each year, thousands of veterinary students and graduates take the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) before they begin their careers.

The number of NAVLE candidates has been climbing in the past few years. While a great majority pass, not all do, or at least not on their first try. In fact, the ultimate performance passing rate has been on the decline in the past four cycles. This rate indicates passage of the test by the time of graduation for senior students from veterinary colleges accredited by the AVMA Council on Education (AVMA COE).

At the same time, the International Council for Veterinary Assessment (ICVA) recently announced some changes it is making to better accommodate test takers as well as limit how many times someone can retake the test.

More test takers

The NAVLE has been administered by the IVCA since 2000 and is a requirement for licensure to practice veterinary medicine in all licensing jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada.

A total of 2,357 candidates took the NAVLE during the April 2023 testing window, which is an increase of 676 from the April 2022 window, according to the ICVA.

Overall, during the 2022-23 testing cycle, 8,230 candidates took the NAVLE, showing a 17.2% increase from the 7,019 candidates who tested during the 2021-22 cycle. The ICVA says there has been a 33.3% increase in the total number of examinations taken in the past five years.

Female student studying
The North American Veterinary Licensing Examination is a requirement for licensure to practice veterinary medicine in the U.S. and Canada. More people are taking the test while the overall pass rate has decreased. In addition, a new policy will set the number of retakes at five.

Results from the 2023-24 cycle will be available on the ICVA website in September, after completion of the April administration and roster verifications from the AVMA Council on Education–accredited veterinary colleges.

The increase in tests taken is multifactorial. For one, the number of first-year students at U.S. veterinary colleges increased an average of 3% per year from 2019-23, or by about 15% total, from 3,456 to 4,047. Overall enrollment for U.S. colleges of veterinary medicine hit 15,157 for the 2022-23 academic year.

These growing numbers come not only from existing veterinary colleges growing their class sizes, but also from new veterinary colleges as their inaugural classes approach graduation.

The University of Arizona graduated its first class in 2023. The inaugural class at Long Island University (LIU) College of Veterinary Medicine in Brookville, New York, will graduate this coming spring. And Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine’s inaugural class will graduate in May 2025.

In addition, there have been increasing numbers of candidates from the Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates (ECFVG) and Program for the Assessment of Veterinary Education Equivalence (PAVE) educational equivalency programs.

Continued growth

This trend of more candidates seems it will continue an upward trajectory. The Ana G. Méndez University-Gurabo School of Veterinary Medicine in Puerto Rico received a letter of reasonable assurance from the AVMA Council on Education (COE) this past December.

Among more established veterinary colleges, Dr. Willie Reed, dean of Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, told Hoosier Ag Today recently that his institution plans to increase its class size from 84 to 120. Additionally, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine will boost its incoming classes from 100 to 125 veterinary students per year after receiving approval in the state budget this past September.  

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis announced a plan on February 12 to have the state provide $50 million in funding toward Colorado State University (CSU)’s new Veterinary Health and Education Complex. The CSU System Board of Governors has already approved a $230 million upgrade and expansion of the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, allowing the university to add 30 veterinary students to its incoming class in the fall of 2026, increasing the class size from 138 to 168.

Rear view of a large group of students in a class
The International Council for Veterinary Assessment says it continues to monitor data from the NAVLE, which includes looking at the differences in the ultimate performance passing rate before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, “which is not yet attributable to any single source or cause.”

To accommodate this growth, Dr. Heather Case, CEO of the ICVA, said that over the past few years, the nonprofit organization has continued to expand the testing windows each year from their pre-COVID timing of a four-week window in November and December and a two-week window in April. For the 2023-24 testing cycle, the ICVA has over six weeks of testing during the November-December window and almost four weeks of testing in April.

“We’re pleased to share that we are targeting a shift within the next two to three years to introduce additional NAVLE testing windows, spaced more evenly throughout the year,” Dr. Case said. “We think this will be useful for the growing number of candidates, as well as the growing number of NAVLE candidates who are graduating during months other than the traditional May-June timeframe.”

Overall test scores

Meanwhile, the ultimate performance passing rate, which indicates passage of the test by the time of graduation for senior students from AVMA COE–accredited schools, for the past five testing cycles has seen a downward trend in the past few years, which is as follows:

  • 94% for 2018-19
  • 95% for 2019-20
  • 92% for 2020-21
  • 90% for 2021-22
  • 86% for 2022-23

The NAVLE is a rigorous, nationally standardized test that consists of 360 clinically relevant multiple-choice questions. In addition to being a requirement for licensure, it is a North American standardized test designed to assess entry-level private clinical practice.

Historically, the pass rate on the NAVLE among graduates of AVMA COE–accredited veterinary medical schools has averaged over 90%. It’s unclear exactly what has contributed to the drop in scores.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused some difficulties for candidates trying to find nearby testing locations with available dates. But, Dr. Case said, veterinary medicine was immediately recognized as a critical part of health care, and so testing for the NAVLE resumed quickly that year. 

“During those first few months, we made some changes to our operations, such as releasing scheduling permits earlier, expanding the testing windows, and releasing scores in batches, to make the process easier for the candidates,” she said. “Some of these we have kept as we have seen increasing candidate numbers over the past few years.

As far as the impact on the scores themselves, “ICVA continues to monitor these data as part of our ongoing quality control measures. This includes monitoring the differences in ultimate performance passing rate variance during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not yet attributable to any single source or cause,” according to the ICVA.

New retake policy

The ICVA is likely also seeing an increase in NAVLE retakes. The numbers in its noncriteron category—which encompasses veterinary students in their final year at AVMA COE–accredited institutions who had previously taken the NAVLE or took the NAVLE with test accommodations or are graduate veterinarians from accredited veterinary colleges—are as follows:

  • 1,067 for 2018-19
  • 1,132 for 2019-20
  • 1,260 for 2020-21
  • 1,589 for 2021-22
  • 2,135 for 2022-23

The ICVA announced last November that it is changing its policy on how many times someone can retake the NAVLE, starting with the November-December 2024 administration. The first change is that candidates can take the test up to five times, including incomplete attempts. All attempts made before the effective date are counted toward the five-attempt limit.

In the past, while the ICVA recommended a maximum of five attempts in five years, it allowed licensing boards to have their own NAVLE retake policy with their own limits or to have no limits at all.

The second change is that candidates may file an appeal with the ICVA board of directors for permission to undertake the NAVLE beyond the five-attempt limit. This includes the candidate securing verification from a licensing board that they will accept the candidate’s NAVLE score if the candidate passes on that attempt.

The ICVA said in the announcement, “This policy follows assessment best practices by limiting the number of attempts made, which enhances test security while simultaneously providing a more accurate measure of a candidate’s knowledge level. It is also in line with the current retake policy for the Veterinary Technician National Examination (VTNE), providing more clarity for applicants and licensing board personnel.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the 33% increase in the past five years is due to the number of unique test takers, not total tests taken.

A version of this story appears in the May 2024 print issue of JAVMA

Visit the International Council for Veterinary Assessment’s website for frequently asked questions about the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination.