Bar Exam

What does increase in MBE pretest questions mean for test takers?

Scantron sheet and pencil

People who sit for future state bar exams will have more “pretest questions” to answer for the multistate portion. These are questions which do not count towards the test taker’s final score; they’re included to gauge how useful those questions would be on a future bar exam. While the National Conference of Bar Examiners thinks the addition will improve the tests, others fear that the development will increase test takers’ stress levels.

Starting in February 2017, 175 Multistate Bar Examination questions will be scored, and 25 will be pretest questions, dispersed throughout the exam, says Erica Moeser, president of the NCBE. Previously, the exam had 190 scored questions, and 10 pretest questions. The agency’s goal is to have every scored question on future MBEs pretested.

“We want to eliminate taking up space with a test question that may not do as good a job with those who know the material versus those who don’t,” she told the ABA Journal, explaining that questions nearly everyone gets right—or wrong—are not useful.

Adding more pretest questions could cause test takers more anxiety, writes Deborah Jones Merritt at Law School Cafe, because they won’t know if a question they’re struggling with actually counts toward their score.

“These new questions may be more ambiguous or difficult than well-tested ones; the agency pretests them precisely to identify those defects,” the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law professor writes.

The MBE is given as part of state bar exams, on the last Wednesdays of February and July.

“The subjects who pretest NCBE’s questions sit for six hours in uncomfortable testing centers, facing enormous time pressure to answer 200 questions that will determine their future,” Merritt writes. “They spend another day writing essays in similarly uncomfortable-and time-pressured-conditions. They often drive long distances to perform these feats, or sleep away from home while taking the tests.”

Time for taking the MBE with the additional pretest questions has not changed, nor has suggested preparation for it, says Moeser, who recently announced the changes in a memo (PDF) sent to law school deans.

The communication also disclosed that the national mean score from the July 2016 MBE has slightly increased, from 139.9 to 140.3. When separated by state, the memo states, mean scores rose in 22 jurisdictions, and fell in 26. Two jurisdictions had no changes.

“No one at this stage knows what accounts for the change, but it would be nice to think it’s a reflection of legal education’s response to the drop we first observed in July 2014,” she says. The mean score for those MBE test takers was 141.5. And in February 2016 it was 135, which reportedly was the lowest average average score on a February administration of the test since 1983.

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