//Bar Exam’s Pass/Fail System: A band-aid solution

Bar Exam’s Pass/Fail System: A band-aid solution

For the past couple of years, Justice Marivic Leonen has expressed his intention to propose a pass or fail system for the Philippine Bar Examination in his interviews and during his speech at the first Legal Education Summit. He stated that he wants the bar exam to be a qualifying exam for those who deserve to practice and not necessarily identify the most brilliant lawyers.

If approved, this means that bar examinees will only be informed if they passed or failed the exam as compared to the status quo, where scores are released, and topnotchers are identified.

This was supported by former Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin, who stated in his CNN interview that the current system is too romanticised. He expressed that if the new system is adopted, there will no longer be a comparison among applicants. During the summit, he also tackled criticisms against legal education due to its “purely knowledge-based” system.

In essence, these are the goals that the pass or fail system currently wishes to achieve: a) for the bar exam to only be a qualifying exam; b) to remove the stigma against low passing grades arising from comparison, and c) to address the romanticisation of the exam due to the competitive nature of a numerical grading system.

However, while there is indeed a massive gap in terms of how the mass glorifies the bar exam as opposed to other licensure examinations, the question is, will shifting to a pass or fail system address the issues? Further, is the glorification of the bar exam a pressing concern at all?

Considering that the loopholes of a numerical grading system are being discussed, it is only right to reflect on why various institutions still practice such a system.

A study was conducted in the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) evaluating opinions regarding pass/fail systems on USMLE residents due to a proposal to abandon the numerical grading system. It was concluded that students and residents prefer the ongoing use of numerical scoring because they believe that scores are essential in residency selection, that examination scores advantage residency applicants, and that scores provide an important impetus to review and solidify medical knowledge.

In the same manner that the practice of law is also composed of different fields, the disclosure of scores per subject, as done, is also an essential variable for career selection and individual/personal assessment. It may also serve as an incentive for the examinees to compensate for the field where they may not have performed well. After all, learning does not stop after passing the bar.

It is true that the score is not the metric of whether or not a bar passer will be a brilliant lawyer in the future. However, the mindset of attaching a person’s worth to numbers cannot be attributed to the existence of a numerical scoring system itself but more to our attitude towards it.

For a new lawyer to have objective data to look at with respect to making career decisions is relatively more important than the discomfort of being compared to other bar takers.

Legal education having purely knowledge-based programs is an institutional problem that can only be addressed with systematic changes by improving practice-driven programs in school curriculums. It is not a byproduct of a grading system but a deep-rooted concern that may need legal practitioners to look back on the structure of how courses are being taught.