By Karen Sloan for Law.com
It seems that the in-person bar exam is making a comeback.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners announced Tuesday that it is not planning to make a remote bar exam available to jurisdictions for the February 2022 exam, and will instead only offer materials for an in-person exam. The National Conference, which develops the three main bar exam components, has since October 2020 given states the option to choose between remote and onsite exams due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means the upcoming July 2021 test will be the final national online bar exam.
“Remote exams have been a valuable stopgap for jurisdictions during this time, allowing examinees to take the test without having to gather in a larger group,” said Beth Hill, the national conference’s director of test development, operations, and security in an announcement of the move. “However, remote exams create challenges for exam security and uniformity, and for this reason, we have consistently advocated for in-person testing as the best option whenever possible.”
The remote bar exam has proven polarizing. Some recent bar examinees were happy to not have to show up at convention centers and other large venues with hundreds of other test takers during the pandemic. But others criticized the move to online testing, citing concerns over potential cheating and the rules imposed to prevent it—such as requiring test takers to remain in their seats for long periods of time and prohibiting them from looking away from their computer screens. (Computer cameras and microphones were used to monitor for cheating.) Critics have also argued that online exams are unfair to lower-income test takers without reliable internet and people who lack a quiet place to sit for the exam, and to racial minorities who may not be recognized by online facial recognition technology. What’s more, some said the software they had to download to their personal computers may have left the vulnerable to security breaches.
Bar exam officials, however, have said that the online exams given thus far in October 2020 and February 2021 were largely successful, with few examinees facing technical issues.
According to the National Conference, 29 jurisdictions are planning to give a remote exam next month, while 24 are administering it in person. California, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania are among the states planning to give remote exams. Texas, Minnesota and Virginia are giving in-exams July 27 and 28.
While the National Conference develops the exam, individual jurisdictions have the ultimate say over what test they give and the format it follows. That means an individual state could opt to design and administers its own bar exam if it wanted to deliver the test online. Several states, including Nevada, Michigan, Florida and Louisiana, opted for that route in the summer of 2020.
But the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine will likely change the calculus for bar exam authorities who have thus far been reluctant to return to in-person testing. Hill said the National Conference’s decision to return to in-person testing is subject to changes in public health conditions.
“Although conditions appear to be improving, [the National Conference] recognizes that any jurisdiction’s public health authority may establish that candidates cannot test in person,” Hill said. “Should that occur, we are committed to working with that jurisdiction on a solution that will enable its candidates to take the bar exam.”