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Will this week mark the end of the remote bar exam?

3 minute read

REUTERS/Paul Hackett

  • New York, California among states giving bar exam online
  • National Conference of Bar Examiners doesn't plan to offer an online test in the future
  • Overhaul of bar exam content is already underway

(Reuters) - Thousands of recent law graduates logged on to their computers from home on Tuesday to take what is on track to be the third and final remote bar exam of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners last month announced it does not plan to give jurisdictions the option to give the two-day attorney licensing test online again, and will return to only providing an in-person exam starting with the next test in February 2022.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, 29 jurisdictions—including New York, California, Florida, and Illinois—are holding remote exams, during which test takers are monitored for cheating through the cameras and microphones on their computers while taking the exam at a location of their choosing. Twenty four other jurisdictions, including Texas, Virginia and Minnesota, are giving the exam in the traditional in-person format this week.

A spokeswoman for the National Conference, which designs the bar exam, said Tuesday that no jurisdictions have requested a remote option for future exams or indicated that they will not be able to administer upcoming tests in person. Still, with COVID-19 cases on the rise again in the U.S., the group cautioned that its decision to move away from online testing could change if public health conditions worsen.

Some test takers have appreciated the flexibility offered by the remote exam, while others have found it highly stressful, said Allie Robbins, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law who offers bar exam support to students.

“For some students, being able to take the exam in their own space has been a good thing. For other students, that’s outweighed by the stress of artificial intelligence and not being able to use scrap paper on most of it,” she said. “I think it cuts both ways depending on the individual student.”

The remote bar exam has been a source of bitter debate since some states began using them in the summer of 2020, when officials deemed in-person tests infeasible.

A handful of jurisdictions developed their own online exams in July, but many opted to delay the test until October 2020, when the National Conference offered the first-ever national online bar exam. Bar examiners deemed that test a success, though some examinees complained of technology problems. Others took issue with rules that prohibited bathroom breaks during testing sessions and required them to keep their eyes on their computer screens in order to prevent cheating.

The use of facial recognition technology to verify the identities of test takers also emerged as a flashpoint, with critics saying the technology is discriminatory because it’s less effective in recognizing people of color than white people.

But much of the public opposition to the remote test has waned since the October exam, and many states gave this year’s February exam online with relatively few problems or pushback.

Similarly, a push for states to adopt so-called diploma privilege programs that allow law graduates to become licensed without taking the bar exam has also slowed in recent months, though Robbins said that diploma privilege advocates continue to organize and that their efforts may bear fruit in the coming years. The Oregon Supreme Court, for example, is currently weighing the adoption of several alternative licensing programs that don't involve the bar exam.

Meanwhile, the National Conference is in the process of overhauling the bar exam to make it more integrated and skills-focused, though the new version is not expected to debut for five years.

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