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California Bar Considers Cutting Ties with NCBE Amid Financial Struggles
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Financial Pressures Prompt Change

The State Bar of California, facing significant financial challenges, had been poised to decide on a shift in its bar exam development process. The proposal involved transitioning from the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) to Kaplan Test Prep for crafting a new Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) replacement, set to launch in February 2025.

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Decision Postponed

On May 16, the State Bar of California’s board of trustees unexpectedly pulled the proposal from their agenda. No details were provided on when the discussion would resume, leaving the future of the proposal uncertain.

  
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Proposed Changes

The proposal, originally part of the May 16-17 board meeting agenda, aimed to cut costs by administering the bar exam remotely. This shift could save an estimated $4.2 million annually, reducing the need for large, in-person testing venues. The memo highlighted potential savings of $2.8 to $4 million annually, depending on whether the exam is fully remote or hybrid.

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Cost Implications

While remote administration would save costs, developing the new exam with Kaplan would be more expensive. Currently, the NCBE is paid about $1 million annually for MBE questions. Kaplan’s proposed fee is up to $1.475 million per year for five years, according to the memo.

The State Bar’s admissions fund is projected to face insolvency by 2026, with a $3.8 million deficit forecast for 2024 and only $3.3 million in reserves by the end of this year.



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Concerns from Legal Educators

In April, the State Bar consulted with deans and faculty from California law schools. The response, encapsulated in an April 12 letter, criticized the proposal as “hasty, risky, and poorly planned.” Concerns included the practicality of the timeline and the adequacy of Kaplan’s experience in test development compared to the NCBE’s extensive, multi-year process for creating exam questions.

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Industry Reactions

Sean Silverman, owner of Silverman Bar Exam and LSAT Tutoring, expressed skepticism, suggesting the move appeared “desperate” and driven by financial rather than educational motives. Austen L. Parrish, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, echoed these concerns, emphasizing the need for reliable, thoroughly vetted exam content.

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Kaplan’s Role and Expertise

Kaplan, traditionally a test preparation company, would be entering new territory as a test developer. Despite skepticism, some believe the timeline is achievable. Greg Sarab, CEO of exam software company Extegrity, pointed out Kaplan’s extensive repository of questions and data from years of practice exams.

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Potential Partnership with Nevada

The Nevada Board of Examiners has shown interest in using California’s proposed Kaplan-developed test. An agreement suggests that if the Nevada Supreme Court approves, the two states could collaborate on exam administration, sharing development costs and ensuring secure exam materials.

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Implications for Bar Candidates

If adopted, the fully remote exam could benefit bar candidates by eliminating travel and accommodation costs. However, remote exams pose challenges for security and fairness, as candidates need access to reliable technology and quiet testing environments.

Broader Bar Exam Reforms

The California proposal is part of broader reconsiderations of the bar exam. The American Bar Association (ABA) is exploring alternate licensure pathways, and several jurisdictions have recently lowered cut scores. Additionally, the NextGen bar exam, developed by the NCBE, is set to debut in July 2026, further reshaping the landscape of legal licensure.

Conclusion

The decision to overhaul California’s bar exam process is driven by financial necessity but fraught with logistical and educational challenges. As the State Bar continues to navigate these complexities, the outcome will significantly impact future bar candidates and the broader legal community.



 

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