ExamSoft and NCBE

April 6th, 2015 / By

I recently found a letter that Erica Moeser, President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) wrote to law school deans in mid-December. The letter responds to a formal request, signed by 79 law school deans, that NCBE “facilitate a thorough investigation of the administration and scoring of the July 2014 bar exam.” That exam suffered from the notorious ExamSoft debacle.

Moeser’s letter makes an interesting distinction. She assures the deans that NCBE has “reviewed and re-reviewed” its scoring, equating, and scaling of the July 2014 MBE. Those reviews, Moeser attests, revealed no flaw in NCBE’s process. She then adds that, to the extent the deans are concerned about “administration” of the exam, they should “note that NCBE does not administer the examination; jurisdictions do.”

Moeser doesn’t mention ExamSoft by name, but her message seems clear: If ExamSoft’s massive failure affected examinees’ performance, that’s not our problem. We take the bubble sheets as they come to us, grade them, equate the scores, scale those scores, and return the numbers to the states. It’s all the same to NCBE if examinees miss points because they failed to study, law schools taught them poorly, or they were groggy and stressed from struggling to upload their essay exams. We only score exams, we don’t administer them.

But is the line between administration and scoring so clear?

The Purpose of Equating

In an earlier post, I described the process of equating and scaling that NCBE uses to produce final MBE scores. The elaborate transformation of raw scores has one purpose: “to ensure consistency and fairness across the different MBE forms given on different test dates.”

NCBE thinks of this consistency with respect to its own test questions; it wants to ensure that some test-takers aren’t burdened with an overly difficult set of questions–or conversely, that other examinees don’t benefit from unduly easy questions. But substantial changes in exam conditions, like the ExamSoft crash, can also make an exam more difficult. If they do, NCBE’s equating and scaling process actually amplifies that unfairness.

To remain faithful to its mission, it seems that NCBE should at least explore the possible effects of major blunders in exam administration. This is especially true when a problem affects multiple jurisdictions, rather than a single state. If an incident affects a single jurisdiction, the examining authorities in that state can decide whether to adjust scores for that exam. When the problem is more diffuse, as with the ExamSoft failure, individual states may not have the information necessary to assess the extent of the impact. That’s an even greater concern when nationwide equating will spread the problem to states that did not even contract with ExamSoft.

What Should NCBE Have Done?

NCBE did not cause ExamSoft’s upload problems, but it almost certainly knew about them. Experts in exam scoring also understand that defects in exam administration can interfere with performance. With knowledge of the ExamSoft problem, NCBE had the ability to examine raw scores for the extent of the ExamSoft effect. Exploration would have been most effective with cooperation from ExamSoft itself, revealing which states suffered major upload problems and which ones experienced more minor interference. But even without that information, NCBE could have explored the raw scores for indications of whether test takers were “less able” in ExamSoft states.

If NCBE had found a problem, there would have been time to consult with bar examiners about possible solutions. At the very least, NCBE probably should have adjusted its scaling to reflect the fact that some of the decrease in raw scores stemmed from the software crash rather than from other changes in test-taker ability. With enough data, NCBE might have been able to quantify those effects fairly precisely.

Maybe NCBE did, in fact, do those things. Its public pronouncements, however, have not suggested any such process. On the contrary, Moeser seems to studiously avoid mentioning ExamSoft. This reveals an even deeper problem: we have a high-stakes exam for which responsibility is badly fragmented.

Who Do You Call?

Imagine yourself as a test-taker on July 29, 2014. You’ve been trying for several hours to upload your essay exam, without success. You’ve tried calling ExamSoft’s customer service line, but can’t get through. You’re worried that you’ll fail the exam if you don’t upload the essays on time, and you’re also worried that you won’t be sufficiently rested for the next day’s MBE. Who do you call?

You can’t call the state bar examiners; they don’t have an after-hours call line. If they did, they probably would reassure you on the first question, telling you that they would extend the deadline for submitting essay answers. (This is, in fact, what many affected states did.) But they wouldn’t have much to offer on the second question, about getting back on track for the next day’s MBE. Some state examiners don’t fully understand NCBE’s equating and scaling process; those examiners might even erroneously tell you “not to worry because everyone is in the same boat.”

NCBE wouldn’t be any more help. They, as Moeser pointed out, don’t actually administer exams; they just create and score them.

Many distressed examinees called law school staff members who had helped them prepare for the bar. Those staff members, in turn, called their deans–who contacted NCBE and state bar examiners. As Moeser’s letters indicate, however, bar examiners view deans with some suspicion. The deans, they believe, are too quick to advocate for their graduates and too worried about their own bar pass rates.

As NCBE and bar examiners refused to respond, or shifted responsibility to the other party, we reached a stand-off: no one was willing to take responsibility for flaws in a very high-stakes test administered to more than 50,000 examinees. That is a failure as great as the ExamSoft crash itself.


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