Anticipating the Impact of the USMLE Step 1 Pass/Fail Scoring Decision on Underrepresented-in-Medicine Students

McDade, William MD, PhD; Vela, Monica B. MD; Sánchez, J.P. MD, MPH
Academic Medicine: September 2020 - Volume 95 - Issue 9 - p 1318-1321
September 2020
DOI: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000003490

Three-digit United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 scores have assumed an outsized role in residency selection decisions, creating intense pressure for medical students to obtain a high score on this exam. In February 2020, the Federation of State Medical Boards and the National Board of Medical Examiners announced that Step 1 would transition to pass/fail scoring beginning in 2022. 

The authors discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of the pass/fail scoring change for underrepresented-in-medicine (UiM) trainees. UiM students may benefit from this change because it reduces the effect of an inequitable exam; helps correct for students who attend medical schools with a curriculum heavier on nontested formative elements; and decreases stress, improves quality of life, and undermines imposter syndrome. However, this change may also precipitate unforeseen challenges, such as increased discrimination toward UiM trainees, an increase in high-stakes test failures due to a reduced focus on preparing for standardized exams, or the development of new (e.g., subject exams) or overreliance on existing (e.g., school ranking) metrics that would make UiM residency candidates less competitive. 

To enhance UiM representation in the future health care workforce, it is imperative that national organizations (e.g., accrediting, licensing, regulatory, professional, honor, student, and faculty), hospitals, residency programs, and patient advocacy groups undertake a shared, rigorous approach in assessing the impact of the pass/fail scoring change on UiM applicants’ selection to specialty and subspecialty residencies.