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Students taking the Pennsylvania bar examination might no longer be seen shaking their wrists in fatigue and panicking over dead pens. For the first time in its 100-year history, the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners has allowed students to complete the essay portion of the test on their laptop computers. Bar applicants who took the test last month were the first to be able to take advantage of the electronic option. Mark S. Dows, executive director of the board, said the 55 applicants who chose to type out their answers on their laptops went through the test almost without a hitch. “One gentleman had an A drive that was defective,” Dows said. “Luckily, we had another saving disk to download the information onto.” Across the country, only 14 jurisdictions allow students to take the bar on laptops, Dows said, with Pennsylvania and New York as the only jurisdictions in the Northeast. California first started the trend five years ago, he said. Laptop testing is something applicants in Pennsylvania have requested for some time, Dows said. “I solicit feedback after each test,” he said, “and that has come up as an issue several times.” The board contracted with ExamSoft Worldwide to acquire the SoftLaunch/Soft-Test program, designed to work from any Windows-based desktop and restrict the user’s access to any tool outside of word processing functions. “The software blocks out everything on the hard drive. It has been tested by several thousand applicants,” Dows said. Although it is possible that someone could crack the system and cheat on the test, Dows said, that chance is remote. “If one guy writes a program, another guy can write one that can defeat it, so I suppose it could happen,” Dows said. “But the exam is administered in a testing environment. There are proctors and administrators walking around. I don’t have any fears about that [cheating on the test].” Applicants who choose to use their laptops rather than handwrite the six-hour test must submit an extra $100 administrative fee, used to cover the cost of the program, an on-site computer engineer sent by ExamSoft for troubleshooting, a separate room to spare the handwritten test-takers from the noise of typing, and electronic hookups, Dows said. As of now, Valley Forge is the only location in Pennsylvania where applicants can take the bar on their laptops. “I hope to expand that over the next two to three years,” Dows said. “I have to have at least 50 people to do it at a site.” About one month before the test, he said, those applicants can download the program from the board’s Web site. This allows them to make sure the program is compatible with their computer well before test time and to play around with the program and get used to it, Dows said. Dows can monitor the applicants’ activity on the Web site, so he can be apprised of any problems and send e-mail reminders to those who are late in verifying their computer compatibility. At the end of the test the students save the information to three separate places: two diskettes save the test from the computer’s A drive and the students also save the test to their hard drive, where it is encrypted so they cannot access it later. The proctors then collect the disks, Dows said. Board staff immediately prints out the material from the disks for review, Dows said. The process went very smoothly for the February test, Dows said, as there was only a small number of laptop test-takers. However, anticipating a sharp increase in July, when about 2,000 applicants are scheduled to take the test, his office simulated a situation with 600 laptop test-takers. Dows said that went smoothly as well. The board can avoid controversy with students who claim not all their information was saved to the disks (even though the program saves data once every minute), thanks to another security feature of the program. The program can tell the board how long an applicant spent on a particular question and how many keystrokes he or she used in the answer. “So if they say we didn’t get their whole answer, we can check,” Dows said. The applicants also sign a waiver before the test, agreeing to take the remainder of the test in writing should their computer malfunction. “What I’ve gotten from other states is that it’s very rare for a computer to malfunction, but it certainly has happened,” Dows said. Printed-out tests will also be a saving grace to graders, who won’t have to deal with so much barely intelligible handwriting, Dows said. This could ultimately lead to expedited test results, Dows said, so long as the graders don’t become overburdened with too many tests. “You have to be careful,” Dows said. “You can only grade for so long. Calibration is very important to us.” The response from applicants has been extremely positive, Dows said. Test-takers seem excited to be able to type their way through the bar. “People having gone through school are not used to writing for six solid hours,” he said.

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