Students taking part in February's New York bar examination on a laptop computer will be using different software than that which malfunctioned for some candidates in July 2007.
In addition, candidates will be required to sign new, more detailed waivers next month absolving the state Board of Law Examiners of liability if hardware, software or even the electricity in the examination hall fails during the test.
Both the new software provider and the expanded waiver were the result of problems with SecurExam, the software used during the July 2007 exam, according to John J. McAlary, executive director of the law examiners' board. To at least hundreds of the 5,000 candidates using laptops, parts or all of answers to essay questions seemed to disappear as students worked on their responses or, later, tried to download them for grading.
The Board of Law Examiners determined that backup features on the software salvaged essays typed by all but 47 students.
The contract with SecurExam's provider, Software Secure Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., expired with the July test. The law examiners have contracted with Examsoft Worldwide, Inc., of Deerfield Beach, Fla., to use its SofTest software for this year's February and July exams.
Last summer's software headaches had "some effect" on the change, McAlary said in an interview Wednesday.
"Our contract was up," he said. "Our board wanted to look at other companies to see what was out there, what other jurisdictions are using. It helped direct us as far as looking at the whole picture of the software, what it does, what the support is before and after the exam."
Applicants for next month's test who expressed interest in using a laptop will be contacted by e-mail no later than Monday on how to download the SofTest software. The cost for SofTest remains the same as for SecurExam, $70. That is in addition to the standard $250 charge for the two-day exam.
The software allows answers to the six essays on the bar exam to be typed into laptops while prohibiting access to any other files on the computers.
McAlary said a waiver of liability that candidates were required to sign has been expanded to specifically absolve the board of responsibility for any incomplete or missing essay answers.
"This waiver now, obviously, takes on a few other areas, some additional notices that were otherwise posted on our Web page," McAlary said. "We wanted to make clear to the candidates what the risks are with laptops. Unfortunately, the nature of technology is that there will always be risks."
In part, the new waiver states: "I acknowledge that the Board assumes no liability in the event that any portion(s) of my essay answer(s) becomes lost or missing due to technical difficulties, and if any or all of my essay answers are unrecoverable, only those portions that are able to be retrieved will be graded."
The law examiners concluded that laptop essay answers were spoiled on 47 exams from July 2007. Fifteen of those candidates passed the exam based on the rest of their tests, 17 failed because even a perfect essay score was not enough to give them a passing grade and 15 were given estimated scores based on a formula worked out by the state board and the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
Diane F. Bosse, chairwoman of the board and a partner with Volganau & Bosse in Buffalo, said no special appeals process was set up for candidates disputing the July 2007 exam results. She said she knows of no instances where the board has been sued by disgruntled test takers.
About 1,700 of 5,000 applicants for the February 2008 bar exam expressed interest in using laptops, McAlary said. Just under 1,000 of the 3,500 candidates who took the February 2007 used a computer.
"It doesn't appear that [the July software problem] scared people away," McAlary said. "Candidates now just seem to be more comfortable and attached to their laptops."
McAlary said the board could opt out of the agreement with Examsoft if there are problems with the February exam.
Examsoft provided the software when the law examiners first let candidates use laptops on a pilot basis in 2003.
Software Secure's president, Douglas M. Winneg, said he had no hard feelings.
"We are grateful for the excellent partnership we have had with the staff of the New York Board of Law Examiners since taking over the laptop program in February 2004," Winneg said in an interview.