Technical difficulties, high anxiety prevail during pandemic-era bar exam

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Although the testing software was supposed to allow individuals to take the July 2020 Indiana Bar Exam while remaining safely in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the technology malfunctioned so badly that the Indiana Supreme Court will be forced to administer the test by relying on email and the applicants’ integrity.

The state’s bar exam, scheduled to be given Tuesday, will not use any computer program but will just email the questions to the applicants who, in turn, will email the answers back. Moreover, the format has been changed to open-book, allowing the test-takers to refer to class notes and course materials during the exam.

Finally, the applicants cannot be monitored while they take the test. The Supreme Court can only remind them that getting help from another individual is prohibited and violators could be subject to sanctions including not being permitted to sit for the Indiana exam for five years.

Applicants who spoke to the Indiana Lawyer on the condition of anonymity were still anxious about the test but grateful the supreme court had made changes rather than forego the July exam altogether.

“I’m feeling good,” one applicant said. “I think the decision was the right one because the software was truly dysfunctional.”

The Supreme Court significantly altered this summer’s bar exam because of the public health emergency and the requirement that everyone maintain social distance. Since bringing together roughly 500 individuals to take the test in-person was not feasible, the court revamped the format. The exam was reduced to one day and the content will consist of short answer and essay questions that were all developed by the state’s bar exam officials.

Indiana was planning to use the same Exam360 software from ILG Technologies as it has since February 2018. However, the computer program had to be modified to enable the test to be given remotely and the Indiana Board of Law Examiners to proctor each applicant during the exam.

Technical difficulties continued to plague the software, which caused the Supreme Court to delay the bar exam before finally deciding to drop Exam360 and go in a different direction.

“After repeated and unforeseen problems with the testing software, the court postponed the exam once until Aug. 4 to allow additional time for the completion of the promised fixes to the software,” the court said in a statement. “Despite these efforts, complications persist and we could not put applicants at peril that the software would not work on exam day.”

ILG Technologies executive vice president Joseph Figo declined to comment.

The court did not reveal how much it had paid ILG for the July exam and whether it would be able to recoup any losses. Bar applicants are scheduled to be refunded by Aug. 15 the $65 they paid for the testing software they had to download to their personal computers.

Attorney John Maley, who has taught the bar prep course offered by the Indianapolis Bar Association and sat on two committees that reviewed and recommended changes to the state’s licensing test for lawyers, commended the Supreme Court and the Indiana Board of Law Examiners for being flexible and creative.

“These are unprecedented, challenging times and Indiana has proven to be a leader in coming up with a fair and just solution to testing this group of bar applicants,” he said.

Downloading trouble

The problems began after the applicants downloaded the software in early July that was supposed to allow them to take the exam remotely. One applicant described the download as acting like malware, invading the different systems on their personal computers to prevent them from accessing the internet or other programs when the exam was being administered.

Over a series of live trials, they reported having trouble logging on to the program, their computers were sluggish, some were overheating and they were receiving messages that the software was having problems connecting to the internet even though there appeared to be no trouble.

In addition, applicants could not get their external cameras to work. The devices were required in order to provide the BLE proctors with a view of each individual as they were taking the test to guard against cheating.

Ongoing headaches with the computer program prompted the first change July 20. The BLE announced that rather than having the applicants take the exam in smaller sections, logging on and off each time a section was completed, the applicants were just going to log on once in the morning and once in the afternoon. While the test was open, they would be allowed to take unlimited 10-minute bathroom breaks.

Applicants were immediately concerned cheating would increase under the new changes. They feared the stakes of the exam were high enough that some of their colleagues would not be able to resist the temptation of walking out of camera range and looking through a book or their notes for an answer.

On July 21, a group of 43 applicants sent a petition to the Indiana Board of Law Examiners, asking the test be changed to an open-book format. The Indiana Supreme Court rejected the request.

Two days later on July 23, the BLE suspended the live trials so applicants could install a new update ILG had sent for the testing software. The board acknowledged several test takers had been experiencing a “significant lag” while using the previous version of Exam360.

When applicants tested the update July 24, they continued to have difficulty getting the program to run properly. Late that day, the supreme court announced it was postponing the bar exam one week to give ILG additional time to fix the problems.

In an email to the applicants, the BLE acknowledged the stress and inconvenience the delay added to the applicants but noted giving the exam as planned was not possible. “It would be a grave disservice to all of you if we attempted to administer the exam at this time,” the board said.

On July 27, the applicants asked the Supreme Court to grant them diploma privilege, enabling them to be licensed to practice law in Indiana without having to take the bar exam. Attached to the letter were impact statements from 53 applicants, which one person described as emotionally tough to read.

Several discussed the hardship created by the delay of the bar exam. Some had been scheduled to move that day while others would have already relocated and would not be at the same address where they had been preparing for the exam. A few were having to reschedule long-standing appointments. Further, some discussed how the software downloads from ILG had mangled their computers so the machines were no longer operating as they should.

On July 29, the supreme court told the applicants the testing software was out and emails were in.


Indiana is not alone in its bar exam troubles.

Nevada pushed the exam back to Aug. 11 and 12 because of difficulties with the ILG software. Also, Michigan’s online exam crashed, preventing the applicants from accessing the test for a period of time. The vendor, ExamSoft, blamed the problem on a cyberattack.

Although frustrated, Hoosier applicants emphasized they are appreciative of all the Supreme Court has done, and they particularly praised Bradley Skolnik, executive director of the Indiana Office of Admissions and Continuing Education, and Tina Hopson, deputy director, for the guidance, patience and empathy they provided during a very trying time.

Applicants are unsure if their reputations will be tarnished by taking an open-book bar exam. However, they are confident they will be good lawyers. “I have put in the work, I have learned the skills and I will be able to continue to learn as I practice,” one applicant said.

Maley agreed.

“This class of Indiana Bar Exam takers will be viewed, in my opinion, (the same) as all others through the years, with the exception that they have endured extraordinary challenges from the pandemic,” he said. “They have worked just as hard in preparing for the exam and have done so either in-person wearing a mask at lectures or remotely by video without the benefits of in-person collaboration.”

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