Designed to measure fitness, character and competence, the bar exam is a grueling 12-hour test typically administered over a two-day period to thousands of recent law school graduates.
But with coronavirus cases still surging in many parts of the nation, some law school graduates view this communal experience not as a shared rite of passage but as a potentially life-threatening risk.
One person worried about the uncertainties of the in-person bar exam is aspiring child protection lawyer Mollie McGuire of Chicago.
McGuire, along with Dalton Hughes and Steven Tinetti, formally filed a legal petition with the Illinois Supreme Court, asking the state’s highest court to grant 2020 law school graduates diploma privilege, meaning they could practice law without sitting for the bar exam. Nearly 1,400 law school graduates, faculty members, lawyers and health care workers signed on to support the effort.
In its response, the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar, which administers the state’s bar exam, reiterated the necessity of the in-person exam, citing the board’s “duty to protect the public from dishonesty and incompetency.” The board also said it did not believe diploma privilege “ensures a necessary prerequisite to licensure, that of competence and public protection.”
The Illinois Supreme Court recently, without explanation, denied the request to grant 2020 law graduates diploma privilege. McGuire said she was devastated. “I can’t believe they replied to a 111-page petition with one sentence,” she said.
Without the option of taking the exam remotely or having it waived, McGuire had a difficult decision: If she didn’t take the exam, she stressed out about not being able to begin her career while still needing to pay living expenses and soon-to-come loan installments.
If she did take the exam, she wondered how she would find child care for her 4-year-old son so she could study, especially with options limited by the pandemic. She worried about accidentally bringing the coronavirus home to her family.
After months of stress, McGuire finally made the decision not to take the in-person bar exam this fall, which had already been postponed from July. She said she does not trust the bar admission board’s ability to keep all test-takers safe.
“The thought of being around that many people is terrifying, but the thought of not becoming an attorney is heartbreaking,” McGuire said. “Every time I say that out loud I cry, because I went to school to do this job. … We’re forced to choose between our livelihoods and our lives.”
In a different sphere of academia, prospective medical students across the country are fighting a required in-person entrance exam. Organizers of the group Students for Ethical Admissions have asked not to be named publicly because they worry it would jeopardize their admissions chances in a process that, as one of the students put it, “tends to have a heavy focus on ‘professionalism.’”
The Association of American Medical Colleges, the organization that administers the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, canceled many testing dates in March after the coronavirus arrived in United States. Testing resumed in Illinois on June 19, with the test length shortened from seven hours and 30 minutes to five hours and 45 minutes, said Karen Mitchell, the association’s senior director of admissions testing service. Most weekends, three shifts of students begin testing at 6:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 6 p.m. on each testing date.
Both the AAMC and the Illinois bar admissions board have emphasized that they are implementing precautionary measures, such as limiting the number of test-takers in the room, spacing out participants, requiring face masks, providing hand sanitizer and checking temperatures.
The bar admissions board released its protocols recently, saying no remote option was planned. The board said the in-person Sept. 9 and 10 exam will be canceled if Illinois moves back to stage three of its coronavirus restrictions.
The board said it will release testing locations two to three weeks before the test date, assuring students “hotels are abundantly available in all cities where the exam will be given.” If a test-taker displays symptoms during the exam, the admissions board said, all test-takers will be dismissed temporarily “so that the room can be sanitized as quickly as possible,” according to the protocols.
One student who took the MCAT exam last month said she thought it was “horribly hypocritical” that the “gatekeepers of the medical profession expect us to go to these tests in these tiny rooms with people we don’t know for six hours and just breathe that in.” She noted the COVID-19 situation is worse in many parts of the country than when the AAMC initially canceled exams in March.
The student said her MCAT experience during the already-stressful test was “so uncomfortable” because some of the equipment, such as headphones and palm scanners, was not sanitized between uses. She said the room was not cleaned between the three shifts of students.
Mitchell said in an email that AAMC has “received a handful of reports and have worked with our testing vendor, Pearson VUE, to review the concerns.”
Mitchell said the MCAT is an important predictor of success in medical school and a necessary aspect of a holistic admissions review. When asked if the exam could be administered remotely, Mitchell said that “in-person testing helps protect groups with fewer resources,” citing students without a quiet space to concentrate or the technology needed for an online exam.
But others worry requiring in-person standardized testing disproportionately burdens disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, exacerbating existing inequities in the medical and law professions. Both McGuire and the premedical student said it can be difficult for some test-takers to take time off work to study or to continue to purchase study materials indefinitely, especially when test dates are subject to cancellation if the local coronavirus situation worsens.
Jamie Vogl took the MCAT in Chicago last month. She said she felt safe overall, and believes the MCAT can be a valuable tool. At the same time, “in light of a pandemic and (Black Lives Matter) it certainly just puts another level of stress of people and can become an extra burden. It might not accurately reflect the capabilities of the person taking the test,” Vogl said.
The Stanford University School of Medicine in California has made the MCAT optional for admissions. Illinois schools have not followed suit, though many noted their deadline for scores has been extended and told the Tribune the test is one part of admissions process.
In an email to graduates, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law Dean Kim Yuracko and Vice Dean Jim Speta wrote that they advocated for diploma privilege in early July but said diploma privilege was unlikely to occur in Illinois.
Nine Illinois law school deans sent a letter to the bar admissions board asking the organization to cancel the September in-person exam and plan for an October remote exam instead. They pledged to work with the admissions board to resolve any lack of access issues presented by the remote exam.
The deans noted other states have moved to a remote exam.
Melissa Hale, director of academic success and bar programs at Loyola University, said she believes there is value to some parts of the bar exam but called other parts “questionable.” She said she doesn’t think that waiving the bar exam would introduce unqualified attorneys because law schools in Illinois do a good job preparing students.
Hale said Loyola is hopeful the Illinois Supreme Court will make adjustments if it’s unsafe to hold an in-person bar exam in September.
“I’m not a medical professional … but if things look like they do right now in September, I think it’d be really difficult to conduct an in-person bar exam safely,” Hale said.
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