Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why does the bar exam continue to take the form it does?

Spoiler: I'm into rhetorical questions, so I'm not going to answer the one I asked above in this post.

A little over a month ago, I sat for a 200 multiple-choice question exam to determine whether I would cross a hurdle necessary for professional licensure. The readership of this blog is probably a little confused because the bar exam was a little less than a month ago. So to answer the obvious question, no, I was not sitting for yet another bar exam. But I have sat for the bar exam in two jurisdictions, so I was comparing the ordeal for licensure in this new profession against that “golden” standard.

My experience leading up to the test was as follows. I filed my application to undergo supervision as a precursor to becoming a licensed professional counselor in the state of Oklahoma in the summer of 2014. The Board did what it had to do with my application which seemed to consist of a verification of education, a background check, confirmation of a relationship with a suitable supervisor and place of employment, and payment of the fee. After about five weeks, they sent me two letters. One notified me that I could begin accruing supervised hours and the other that I was eligible to take the licensure exams. I have two years from the date of that letter to schedule and successfully complete my examinations. It’s a two-part exam, the already mentioned MCQ exam and then a brief, separate law and ethics exam. I looked at my calendar and said, “I think I’ll take it next summer while my students are preparing for the bar exam; I need a reminder of the misery so that I can be sufficiently sympathetic to their ordeal.” A school year goes by during which I continue working as an academic support professional and I accrue supervised client-contact hours in my spare time.

In early May, I pulled out the letter to find the procedure for registering for the exam. I had to apply with a third party administrator to take the exam. I sent in the application with a check and a copy of the Board’s eligibility letter. While waiting to hear back from the third party administrator, I procured my materials to prepare for the exam. I bought them new (which most of my fellow graduates did not), and I combined several different providers resources. They cost less than buying the books alone from most of the bar prep providers.

By the end of May I received an email with my approval and instructions to continue. I went to their website. I entered my zip code. I chose a geographically convenient testing center. It then showed me a calendar with available appointment times. I selected a convenient and feasible date and appointment time to take the exam. Because mornings aren’t my friend, I choose a noon appointment.

I won’t bore you with the details of my study plan (or my study reality) and I’ll go straight to test day. On test day, I had a leisurely breakfast and ran a couple of low brain-power errands, e.g. buying moving boxes. I reported to the testing center 20 minutes before my appointment with two forms of ID in hand. The receptionist checked my ID, confirmed my appointment, created a palm scan to verify identity should I need to exit and then return to the test. I put my hair in a ponytail because a hair tie on my wrist is a threat to test security while one in my hair is not. All of my belongings except my picture ID went into a locker, and I was escorted into the test room to my testing station. The proctor pulled up the test on the computer, gave me a brief orientation, and then left me to the test.

The format of the exam is a 200 question test in a multiple choice format, given in what someone who has taken the MBE considers an overly generous amount of time (I believe it was 240 minutes). It covers eight different content areas as well as five different types of work behaviors. Only 160 of the 200 questions are live questions; they are testing 40 items on every single administration of the exam. And I received my results within 60 seconds of hitting the submit button. Had I failed, it would be three months and another registration fee before I could attempt again. I exited the room, and they used my ID and palm scan to verify that I was still the person who entered the room to take that test. They gave me an unofficial copy of my test results and I was on my way within 90 minutes. No BS belief that finishing the exam early indicates I’m compromising exam security.

Moving to the point I really want to draw with this post - many other professions, some that are arguably more aligned with the practice of law than counseling, use an examination format closer to the counseling model than the law model. Some CPA candidates are encouraged to focus on their exam one segment at a time rather than try to pass all sections at once because they can stack scores from multiple testing dates to get the passing score for each component of their exam. Nurses receive an adaptive computer-based test in facilities like the one I was at. Moreover, the GRE is now, mostly, a computer-based test that is administered in centers like the one I went too. And it’s administered to more than 300,000 people in the United States each year. I’m sorry, I know I jumped from licensing to entrance exams, but let’s compare the number of times the GRE is administered in a year with the almost 81,000 people who took bar exams in 2014.

The infrastructure exists in this country to change the way we do the bar exam, while still maintaining the quality of the test in regards to assessing our graduates' core legal knowledge and reasoning skills. In future weeks, I hope to discuss some of the further ramifications of this idea. This change would create some benefits for examinees, state bars, the public at large, and others. There would also be burdens to those same entities, as well as some others, if this thought experiment were to become a reality. (CMB)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2015/08/why-does-the-bar-exam-continue-to-take-its-current-form.html

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