'I sort of panicked.' Tech problems hit remote bar exam

REUTERS/Kevin Light
  • For some test takers, computers crashed during online exam
  • Officials trying to accommodate those affected by tech issues

(Reuters) - The third time's not the charm for a seamless remote bar exam.

Some test takers encountered technology problems on Tuesday - the first of the two-day attorney licensing exam. It’s unclear how many were impacted by software issues, but the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the organization that designs the test, acknowledged that the testing program did not work properly for everyone. The National Conference said it was working with software vendor ExamSoft to address the problem.

“We are aware of the technical issues some examinees faced during today's administration,” the group said in a prepared statement on Monday evening, after the essay and performance test portions of the bar exam were complete. “While (the National Conference) does not administer the exam, we are communicating with ExamSoft to seek solutions for those affected.”

A National Conference spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for information on the specific problems some test takers faced or how many ran into issues on Day One.

ExamSoft spokeswoman Nici Sandberg said the scope of the issue was not immediately clear, but the problems appear to be tied to computer memory on certain devices.

“We’re working with the jurisdictions to accommodate those who may have experienced verified issues to make sure that all applicants are able to complete every session,” she said.

Frustrated examinees took to Twitter to report that their computer screens went blank and that they had to reboot their computers during test sessions - losing exam time in the process - to get the software to work again.

Nicholas Wallace, who graduated from Stanford Law School last month, said on Tuesday morning that he ran into problems on Monday during the essay portion of Michigan’s bar exam.

“My screen when gray,” he said. “The camera is supposed be on the whole time, but my camera shut off. Nothing was happening. I sort of panicked.”

After about a minute of trying to fix his computer, Wallace called ExamSoft’s support line and got an automated message that instructed people to restart their computers, which he did. The testing program came back on just as an ExamSoft support person reached Wallace. He estimates that he lost about five minutes of the hour-long essay session.

“It seems like a lot of people have had problems, and some people had much more significant problems than I did,” he said.

Harvard Law graduate Beth Feldstein said on Twitter that she was locked out of the exam for an hour and a half.

This is the third time that the National Conference has offered a remote bar exam during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it looks to be the last. The group said in June that it plans to return to exclusive in-person testing starting with the next administration in February 2022. This week, 29 jurisdictions are giving the test online, while 24 are doing it in person. California, New York, Florida and Illinois are among the states giving the exam remotely.

Each of the three remote exams thus far have been marred by technology problems, to varying degrees. A survey of October 2020 remote examinees conducted by two New York lawmakers found that 41% reported Internet or software disruptions. Tech problems were less widespread on the February 2021 exam, though that cohort of test takers was much smaller. Bar exam officials have disputed the prevalence of software problems, however, saying that nearly everyone has been able to successfully complete the remote exam.

Wallace said he had considered the possibility that his computer could crash during the exam, but that it was still a shock when it happened.

“It’s one of those contingencies you think about ahead of time. Like, ‘Oh my God, what if that happens?' And then when it happens, it’s honestly just panic,” he said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com