Bar Standards Board publishes independent review of 2020 qualifying exams

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has published the results of an independent review of the August 2020 Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) exams, the exams used by the Board as part of the qualification process for barristers. The review was commissioned by the BSB in November 2020 and was conducted by Professor Rebecca Huxley-Binns, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) of the University of Hull and Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, an interdisciplinary social scientist based at University College London, who is also an equalities consultant and a disability activist.

The Review found that candidates experienced a number of different challenges, including difficulty in changing to computer-based assessments and challenges related to online proctoring,  when sitting the examination remotely in August 2020, due to a variety of different factors. Based on these the review makes a number of recommendations, which have been collated by the BSB into an examination action plan, designed to ensure that changes are actioned.  The Action Plan is grouped into five main themes and includes measures to:

  • improve the BSB’s communication and engagement with students and training providers;
  • make the centralised assessments more accessible and inclusive, particularly when candidates require reasonable adjustments;
  • make the BSB’s approach to policy and process development in this area more inclusive by improving the regulator’s engagement with key stakeholders;
  • introduce a critical incidents policy and improve data protection and project management;
  • clarify the roles and responsibilities of the BSB and training providers in the management of the centralised.

Responding to the Review, the Chair of the BSB, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, said

“First and foremost, I should like to apologise again to all those students who faced difficulties completing their exams last August. The BSB had to move from pen and paper based assessments delivered by training providers to arrange computer based assessments in a very short period of time in the middle of a global pandemic. Ordinarily, such a change would have taken at least 12 months to plan and to pilot. I am pleased that the report finds that the BSB was right to seek to offer computer based assessments and right to contract with Pearson VUE to deliver the exams, including to run remote proctoring for the students sitting the exams online and to book testing centre spaces for students unable to take the exams remotely. Around 75% of BPTC exams were completed but far too many students faced difficulties which should never have occurred. The BSB’s staff worked very hard to implement the new arrangements for the exams but we very much regret that many students had a difficult experience both in booking and sitting the exams. The Board has welcomed the Review by Professor Huxley-Binns and Dr Kumar. It has approved the Executive’s proposed Action Plan and will ensure that the Review’s recommendations are put into effect. The Board has discussed the Action Plan with Professor Huxley-Binns and Dr Kumar and they fully endorse the Plan as meeting the recommendations in their Review. I am pleased that the Review found no failure of governance. The Board is determined to ensure that the BSB learns the lessons for the future. Those lessons will be of great help to the BSB and to future students. We are very grateful to all those who have contributed to this Review and I should like once again to repeat my apology to those who had difficulties last August.”

Read the BSB’s comments here, or read the full review here.

American Bar Association data shows increase in bar passage scores during the pandemic

New bar score data from the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, released on the 23rd of April 23, showed an increase in the scores compared to 2019 on both the ‘ultimate’ pass rate and for first-time takers, with the aggregate score of law graduates taking the exam for the first time rising by 3% to an 82.83% pass rate.

The data found that:

Students taking the bar exam for the first time in 2020 achieved an aggregate 82.83% pass rate (83.66% with Diploma Privilege), representing a 3-percentage point increase over the comparable 79.64% pass rate for 2019. Diploma Privilege considers those waived into the practice of law without taking the bar because of special rules during the pandemic.

And that 89.99% of 2018 law graduates who sat for a bar exam passed it within two years of graduation (90.10% with Diploma Privilege). This two-year marker, referred to as the  “ultimate” rate is slightly better than the 89.47% comparable figure for 2017 graduates. The report noted that 94.98% of all graduates sat for a bar exam within two years of graduation, and that schools were able to obtain bar passage information from 98.84% of their 2018 graduates.

Under a rule change in 2019, the 197 ABA-approved law schools still accepting students are required to have at least 75% of graduates who sit for a bar exam pass within two years of graduation. Schools found out of compliance have at least two years to meet the rule, known as Standard 316.

“These reports over the years have provided important consumer information for students considering whether and where to attend law school and for others with an interest in legal education,” said Bill Adams, managing director for ABA accreditation and legal education.

Read more about the data.

American Bar Association Recognised Law School requirements relaxed due to COVID

The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has announced that they will consider individual law school circumstances due to COVID-19 if bar passage rates fall below 75%. During the announcement at it’s November 20th public meeting, the council said law schools failing to meet Standard 316, sometimes called ‘the Bar Passage Standard’, could submit pandemic-related information that demonstrates negative opportunities for their graduates to sit for the bar exam or for the school to meet compliance with ‘the Standard’. This is particularly salient as rules adopted in 2019 mean that a law school faces a finding of noncompliance and loss of accreditation if it does not meet Standard 316 for two years.

Outside parties had asked for the suspension of Standard 316 during the COVID-19 period because of the bar exam’s changing schedule and the rule’s potential discriminatory effect on schools with strong minority enrollment. But the council’s Questionnaire and Template Committee said its “recommendations balance several competing interests.”

The committee’s report has said “There is a need to collect outcomes data required by the U.S. Department of Education but also the understanding that any data on the bar exam passage rates during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be abnormal and need to have an ‘asterisk’ accompany it. The pandemic wreaked havoc with planning for in-person bar exams, and subsequently many states this year held bar exams in October instead of July. According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, five jurisdictions also granted emergency diploma privileges or approval for some law school graduates to practice without passing the bar.”

Read more on the ABA’s website.

Washington Supreme Court grants bar exam exemption

On the 12th of June the Washington Supreme Court issued an order allowing graduates, currently registered to take the July or September UBE in Washington, with a J.D. from an ABA accredited law school, to be admitted to the Washington State Bar Association and practice law in the state without taking the bar exam.
The court has said that the order is in recognition of “the exponential impact of the crisis caused by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and the resulting unrest and social action and activism that have affected this set of graduates and applicants, particularly those of color, on top of the already stressful conditions caused by the pandemic and its fallout.”