Bar Exam to Add Performance Test

Teacher & Employment Testing

The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has voted to make available a performance-based test for entry level lawyers by 1997. The new exam will be designed to complement the NCBE s 200-item, all multiple-choice Multistate Bar Exam now required by 47 states. Many states also require the NCBE's Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, composed of 50 multiple-choice items.


The NCBE says the new exam, which it calls the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), will be designed to measure an applicant s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation. NCBE expects many jurisdictions to substitute the MPT for a portion of their state-specific essay questions.


The MPT s history can be traced to California, which began experimenting with alternatives to multiple-choice testing of law school graduates as far back as 1980. Since 1983, the California Bar Exam has included a performance component.


A sample of the new MPT, designed by American College Testing and administered to bar candidates in several states in 1993, included four tasks covering three skill areas: legal analysis, fact analysis and problem solving. Each problem included a file of documents containing both relevant and irrelevant factual materials, a library of legal items including laws and regulations, and a memo detailing the assignment to be completed. Tasks included drafting a letter to a client, outlining a legal brief, and making a proposal for a dispute negotiation.


According to NCBE research, candidates generally liked the MPT, rating it higher than either the multiple-choice or essay tests as an indicator of legal reasoning ability. They also thought it was a better measure of ability to perform as an attorney.


Several issues remain unresolved following the pilot MPT which the final design of the test will have to consider. Many candidates found they had too little time to respond adequately to the problems. Data on racial and gender impacts is incomplete. Other important legal skills, such as persuasive advocacy, planning, decision-making, and self-reflection, are not directly assessed. NCBE already has indicated that the actual test will include a task specifically measuring communications skills.


Though the MPT appears to be a positive addition to the Multistate Bar Exam, there is no evidence that any test either performance-based, essay, or multiple-choice accurately predicts the capability of a law school graduate to be a competent lawyer.