Nearly 600 nursing assistants in Minnesota must retake their professional registration exams following an investigation that found “potential improprieties” at two Inver Hills Community College sites where they trained.

The unusual move was announced Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Health after an investigation into a “suspicious pattern in test results” at two schools: Inver Hills’ Center for Professional and Workforce Development, and its satellite location at BlueSky Online in West St. Paul.

An unusual number of students received perfect scores on the writing exam, where the typical score has been 80 percent to 90 percent, and on the practical exam, where the average score has been around 70 percent, said Gil Acevedo, an assistant state health commissioner.

Rather than sorting out the suspicious scores from the legitimate ones, state officials decided to have all nursing assistants retake the test if their original exams took place between May 1, 2014, and Oct. 16, 2015, at one of the two sites.

“We have an obligation to ensure that these workers meet the basic requirements,” Acevedo said.

He said there is a “relatively low risk” to patients because nursing assistants must be supervised and receive specialized training after hiring and before working with patients.

“Regardless,” Acevedo added, “it is important to re-establish the credentials of these nursing assistants as quickly as possible.”

Nursing assistants are in many ways the lifeblood of nursing homes and care facilities. They monitor patients and their vital signs, administer medication with nurse supervision, and assist patients with dressing, bathing, eating and other daily functions.

Passing the test places nursing assistants on a state registry, which allows them to work at hundreds of federally certified nursing homes and care facilities in Minnesota.

The test assesses nursing assistants’ English skills and their ability to perform basic health care tasks such as taking a pulse or reading a blood pressure monitor.

More than 55,000 certified nursing assistants are currently on the state registry.

Labor shortage

Problems with potentially inflated scores started around May 2014, when Inver Hills negotiated a contract to use a BlueSky office in West St. Paul for the convenience of test-takers in the east metro, said Tim Wynes, president of the community college. Nursing assistant exams at Inver Hills were suspended after state health officials contacted the college about the test scores.

BlueSky’s online high school program has a controversial history; the Minnesota Department of Education tried unsuccessfully to close it down three years ago due to alleged violations of academic standards.

In this instance, BlueSky was simply the location for Inver Hills staff to operate the nursing assistant exams, said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Can keep working

The affected nursing assistants can continue to work until retesting is complete. If they don’t pass the exam again by March 31, though, they will be removed from the state registry and ineligible to work at federally certified nursing homes.

State health officials are contacting nursing assistants who need to retake the test, at no cost to them, along with their employers.

The testing glitch comes at a sensitive time in Minnesota’s nursing home industry, which has struggled with a high rate of burnout and turnover for low-wage nursing assistants amid an increase in elderly Minnesotans needing care.

Vacant nursing assistant positions in nursing homes have tripled since 2009, from 538 to 1,741, according to surveys by the Care Providers of Minnesota.

The executive director of the trade group, Patti Cullen, said she appreciated the state audit that identified the suspect scores and the retesting process that will allow nursing assistants to stay on their jobs.

“We certainly want qualified workers in our places of employment,” she said, “[and] are pleased the testing programs have systems in place to identify errors such as this.”