Monday, November 1, 2021

Pull the Goalie

*I am going to preface this by clearly admitting that I am not someone who regularly teaches bar prep and I know that what I am saying may come from a place of relative ignorance on many issues. I am sure I have missed some important nuances here-and for that, I apologize in advance.*

Recently, we got the news that my youngest child has passed all his required MCAS exams for high school graduation (MCAS is the Massachusetts Child Abuse System according to my kids, but really the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). These are the standardized tests that students in public schools start taking in third grade and take until they pass the required high school level exams for graduation. The elementary grade exams do not have any impact on grades in classes or promotion between grades-they may indicate a need for other school-based interventions or testing, but that is it. I’ve never let any of my children even see the reports that are mailed to parents.

These yearly exams are meaningless…until they have ultimate, high stakes meaning. Students cannot (without jumping through some significant, fiery hoops)graduate from high school without passing the English, Math and Science exams. Some parents complain that “teaching to the test” ruins learning for their children-which is a valid point. Some parents worry about the achievement gap between various groups of children (mainly along racial and socio-economic lines) which is a complete and unavoidable truth. If a test cannot be administered fairly, what is it assessing at all? And why would we attach such significance to an instrument that is irremediable?

And so, we arrive at the current iteration of the Bar Exam. At times, it seems to test a student’s ability to take the exam more than assessing knowledge of the concepts, theories, and skills it purports to assess. The same criticisms that are true about the MCAS are relevant here. We should not teach to a test-we should be teaching for learning. The achievement gap has not been bridged despite being widely acknowledged. And yet, the Bar is the key that opens the gate to many careers in law. With COVID and remote bar exam issues (technical, physical, and psychological), can we really say that it is an accurate instrument of assessment for practice readiness?

Has it ever been?

My thought for this Monday morning is this: since we all know people (not students, but peers) who have passed the Bar and were not ready for primetime, and we all know people who did not pass but were born ready to practice law, then how is passing the Bar a guarantee of anything? Think about it: (just about) every person who has ever been disbarred must have passed the Bar. So why not just pull the goalie here? What are we protecting when not every shot to the goal goes in--even when no one is there? The fact that law school accreditation is in some part contingent on bar pass rate shows, at best, a lack of creativity in assessment. At worst, it shows that we do not really wish to welcome all the qualified potential members into the profession.  We can do better.

(Liz Stillman)

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