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D.C. Bar Exam Passage Rate Rises for First-Ever Online Test (1)

Dec. 9, 2020, 5:15 PM; Updated: Dec. 9, 2020, 9:09 PM

Bar exam takers’ performance improved in Washington D.C.'s first-ever online version of the test, according to data released Wednesday.

The passage rate increased by more than seven points for the October exam, compared to an in-person version of the biannual test in July 2019, an unofficial tally from the District of Columbia Courts’ Committee on Admissions showed.

A total of 76.3% of nearly 1,700 test takers passed, up from 69% of about 1,800 examinees in July 2019.

The rise in D.C.'s pass rate corresponds with recently released data from Ohio, which also showed a rise in bar passage. States moved their bar exams online out of concern that taking the tests in person would risk spreading the coronavirus.

The higher bar exam pass rates for the online tests in D.C. and some states were not a surprise, said Alison Monahan, co-founder of Bar Exam Toolbox, a tutoring and advisory service.

Despite the stresses of living through a pandemic, 2020 law school graduates had about twice the time to study for an October exam than for the usual late July test dates, Monahan said.

“People just had enough time, for the first time,” to prepare for the online test, she said.

Moreover, some law school grads told Monahan that being able to take the test from home reduced their stress—an unexpected benefit. The cutting in half of the Multistate Bar Exam portion of the test, from 200 multiple-choice questions to 100, also helped, she said.

D.C.'s scores will not be deemed “official” until they’re presented to the D.C. Court of Appeals by the Committee on Admissions on Friday, said D.C. Courts spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz.

The Court of Appeals did not have any immediate comment on the pass rate increase.

Health Risks

Nearly half of states, 23, went ahead with in-person bar exams during the last week of July, even as Covid-19 infection rates spiked across the country. At least eight of those states required test-takers to sign waivers agreeing not to sue, even if they believed they contracted the disease at the exam site and were later hospitalized.

Most larger states, including California, New York, and Illinois, pushed their summer tests to early October. The delays were a response at least in part to concerns about the health risks of having test takers sit for the exams in-person in large, indoor settings.

A total of 18 states plus the District of Columbia administered their online exams, devised by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, Oct. 5-6 or Oct. 5-7.

D.C. then joined a growing list of states in announcing it will hold its February 2021 bar exam online. The city is also one of a handful of jurisdictions to recently grant certain U.S. law school graduates the ability to be licensed to practice law without taking the bar exam.

The online tests also spurred a range of complaints. Bar exam takers in several states reported technical problems, from rejected file attachments to the unexpected deletion of online notes for essay questions.

ExamSoft, the company that provided testing software to most states, later said more than 98% of candidates who had already downloaded exams were able to successfully start their tests. It said other reports of malfunctions were overblown.

At the same time, a handful of states and D.C. in 2020 decided to allow some law school grads to sidestep the exam. Those states established different paths to law licenses, including diploma privilege, which allows grads who meet certain qualifications to become licensed without having to take and pass a test first. The pandemic ultimately may help improve lawyer licensing systems, experts say, by spurring more state decisions to reform, or end, their testing regimens.

Mixed Results

New York and California have yet to release pass rate percentages from their October tests, but data from other larger states recently have begun to trickle in. The results offer mixed feedback on how the chaos affected test takers.

Ohio authorities reported earlier this month that 77.3% of October bar exam takers in the state passed the test, an increase from the 73.1% who passed the in-person version of the Buckeye State’s test in July 2019. That was also highest overall pass rate in Ohio since July 2013.

A total of 85.3% of first-time test takers in Ohio passed in October, up from 82.2% the previous year. Some states tabulate the pass rates of first-timers, in addition to or instead of overall rates, because they can better reflect how recent law school grads have fared on the test.

In Maryland, the trend line was more muddled. October test takers passed the exam at an overall rate of 70.0%, according to the Maryland State Board of Law Examiners, a slight uptick from the July 2019 overall pass rate of 68.4%. But the passage rate for first-time test takers in Maryland—79.4%—declined from 80.6% the previous year.

In Florida, bar exam pass rates also suffered for first-time test takers during the October online sitting.

The Sunshine State reported a 71.7% pass rate for first-time test takers in mid-October, when a one-day test was given online there for the first time. That was a modest decline from July 2019 when 73.9% passed the in-person test. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners only tracks the pass rates for first-time exam takers.

(Updates with comment from bar exam tutoring service co-founder.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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