Budding lawyers should be prepared to take the bar exam in person beginning next year, according to recently announced plans from the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE).
The NCBE said in early June that February 2022 bar exam materials will be made available to jurisdictions for in-person testing only unless public health restrictions prohibit such plans. If this occurs, the NCBE will work with jurisdictions on another solution that will enable candidates to take the exam.
Due to COVID-19, the NCBE, which develops the bar exam used in most U.S. jurisdictions, has made testing materials available for both in-person and remote exams beginning in the second half of 2020 and throughout 2021. Before COVID-19, bar exams were administered in person.
“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, NCBE Director of Test Development, Operations, and Security, in the announcement. “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 July 2021 bar exam is expected to be the last with a remote option, according to the NCBE. Twenty-nine jurisdictions including Illinois plan to administer the exam remotely; 24 will administer it in person.
Illinois’ bar exam plans
Due to lingering public health concerns, the Illinois Supreme Court and the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar (IBAB) announced in March that the July 2021 Illinois bar exam will be administered remotely.
The July 2021 exam will build on the state’s successful administration of two remote exams. Illinois administered online exams to over 2,000 applicants in October 2020 and 710 applicants in February 2021.
According to the NCBE, 75% of test-takers in Illinois passed the October 2020 bar and 42% passed in February 2021. Forty-one percent of test-takers passed the in-person exam in February 2020.
Like previous exams, the July 2021 bar will be a full Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) with a portable score. IBAB hasn’t yet announced reciprocity agreements with other jurisdictions.
The Court and IBAB haven’t announced plans for the February 2022 bar exam in Illinois.
“Traditionally, the bar exam has been an in-person administration. The remote option served during a time when offering the exam in a traditional setting was not possible,” said Nancy Vincent, Director of Administration at IBAB. “We believe that an in-person exam is preferable unless conditions preclude it. We will announce plans for the February 2022 bar exam in Illinois in the coming months.”
Lowering the ‘cut score’
Several states have lowered the “cut score” of their bar exam to address the racial gap in passage rates and continuing diversity challenges in the legal profession.
California has seen incremental improvements in passage rates since it permanently lowered its score from 1440 to 1390 beginning in October 2020. In February 2021, 35% of Black candidates who sat for the exam for the first time passed, up from 17.6% the previous year. And almost 45% of Hispanic candidates passed, up from 25.2% previously.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court lowered its passage rate from 276 to 270 in March 2021 and made the change retroactive for the February 2021 exam. North Carolina, Oregon, Washington temporarily lowered their minimum passing scores due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Washington’s lowered score still applies in the July 2021 exam.
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