The Effect of Covid-19 on the Bar Exam

By Emma Betz, Staff Writer 

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The bar exam is a law student’s “final hurdle” in the race towards becoming an attorney.[1] To become an attorney in the United States, all law school graduates must pass their state’s bar exam. While some jurisdictions administer their own bar exams, a majority of states have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE).[2] Currently, thirty-six jurisdictions utilize the UBE, which is a two-day bar exam that includes a multistate performance test, a multistate essay exam and the multistate bar exam.[3] The UBE is unique because it can be transferred across states, since it is administered, graded, and scored uniformly.[4] The remaining jurisdictions retain their own bar exams, which are specific to their jurisdictions and cannot be transferred across states. 

Whether students are taking the UBE or a different exam, the exam is a large source of stress, anxiety, and fear. And for recent test takers, the pandemic has greatly disrupted their bar exam experience and added to their discomfort. As the pandemic spread across the country, states disagreed on how to administer the bar exam. Twenty-nine states opted to administer an in-person, full length bar exam in July, while others decided on a shortened, online bar exam in October.[5]

The results from the 2020 and 2021 exams differed greatly from those of previous years.[6] Collectively, the average score on the UBE, fell to 140.4, which is a 0.7 decrease from the July 2019 exam, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners (“NCBE”).[7] As of September 2021, only two states, South Dakota and Utah, reported an increase in passage rates since 2019.[8]

The decreased scores can largely be attributed to the unfamiliar testing format and altered learning environments created by Covid-19. Many test takers were apprehensive about taking the bar exam online. The online exam used computer cameras and microphones to monitor the exams.[9] Test takers were required to remain in their seats for long periods of time and were prohibited from looking away from their computer screens.[10]

Cheating and being falsely accused of cheating during the exam were two major concerns raised by test takers. One pregnant test taker even experienced contractions during the exam but continued to sit for the exam out of fear that she would be punished if she moved away from the view of the proctoring service.[11] Test takers also argued that online exams are unfair to low-income test takers who do not have access to reliable internet or a quiet place to take the exam. 

To the relief of many future test takers, the NCBE released a statement on June 1, 2021, announcing that they would be returning to in-person testing following the July 2021 exam.[12]  

“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 NCBE’s director of test development, operations, and security. “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.”[13]

Acknowledging the uncertainty of the pandemic, the NCBE also noted that accommodations will be considered if it is established that test takers are unable to complete the exam in-person.[14] NCBE’s commitment to returning to an in-person bar exam will hopefully provide law students with some sense of comfort and normalcy as they prepare for the exam. 


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