State's bar exam has a few points missing Due to oversight, minimum score will be shifted downward

April 03, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

The 800 aspiring attorneys who sat for the February bar exam weren't the only ones to come away with less than perfect scores.

In a humbling oversight, the Maryland Board of Law Examiners compiled a test with only 195 points, five fewer than intended.

Last week, the law examiners acknowledged the error in a letter to test takers. A passing score on the February exam still will be 70 percent, the examiners said in the letter. But instead of the usual 140 points, the minimum score for passing -- and earning a lawyer's license -- will be 136.

Mistakes of that kind are rare, but not unheard of. Seven years ago, the state law examiners inadvertently compiled an exam with five too many points.

Bedford T. Bentley Jr., secretary to the law examiners, and one of the officials who oversees the exam, shouldered blame for the latest mistake. Mr. Bentley said it is his responsibility to check the exam for everything from typographical errors to discrepancies in point totals.

"In this case, I obviously neglected to double-check," he said. "I remember checking the headings on each question. I remember checking them very carefully. But this simply got by."

If the mistake in point totals eluded law examiners, it jumped out at several students taking the two-day bar exam, known for its tricky questions and maze-like fact patterns.

Mr. Bentley recalled being approached by several students who caught the mistake on the February exam. At the time, they were in the middle of the exam's essay section. The six to seven questions are assigned point values, which usually add to 200. The questions are written by the law examiners, Maryland lawyers appointed by the Court of Appeals.

During lunch break, exam proctors made a brief announcement about the error. Test takers were told that they'd be contacted later about how the law examiners planned to adjust for the error.

"I was very disturbed that the oversight got through," Mr. Bentley said.

Several students said they were not concerned by the mistake or the buzz in the exam room when officials announced the error.

"It didn't bother me, I just figured they'd find some way to resolve it," said Randy Sergent, a University of Virginia Law School graduate who took the February exam. Results of the exam are expected to be mailed in early May.

Mr. Sergent, who is law clerk for Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Court of Appeals, said he mostly was concerned about whether the error might work out to the test takers' advantage.

"I was hoping they'd give us five free points," he said with a laugh.

Bar officials elsewhere said they were unaware of similar mistakes occurring in other states, though they assumed they happen.

"Intuitively, I know these events do occur," said Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

But Ms. Moeser said the most important thing for bar examiners was to make sure their mistakes do not affect the grading of the exam.

"When giving a test, one would always prefer that it be snag-free," she said. "Inevitably, there are errors.

"Everyone who gives these tests understands how much is at stake, that it is a high-stakes test for those taking it. I don't know that you ever cleanse the process of human error. The important thing is that you respond to [errors] sensitively."

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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