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Passion For Reason

Bar exams: rote memory rather than real MCQs

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The so-called Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro uses words to conceal rather than reveal. For instance, it grandly declares: “The relationship of the Central Government with the Bangsamoro Government shall be asymmetric.” Asymmetric basically means they’re not equals, “hindi pantay,” but it doesn’t say who is subordinate to whom. If the intention was to say that the Bangsamoro Government is a subordinate political subdivision of the national government—as it should be, no two ways about that—that should’ve been stated. Here the fudge word is “asymmetric,” which creates an ambiguity that can be a fresh source of conflict in the future.

Second, the Agreement says: “The Bangsamoro shall have competence over the Shari’ah justice system.” Whatever happened to the Supreme Court’s power to regulate inferior courts? Here the fudge word is “competence,” as if that is cured by the executive branch bargaining away the high court’s exclusive power and sharing it with this new entity called Bangsamoro.

The third fudge word is “core territory.” The Constitution uses the term “territorial jurisdiction,” while the organic act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao refers to the “area of autonomy.” Why add a new term to the lexicon of self-determination? If there is a “core” territory, there’s got to be a penumbral emanation from that core. It means that the Agreement expanded the ARMM area but that is just the start. Worse, it does not secure the borders equally for both the central and Bangsamoro governments. It’s one-sided. It secures the irreducible “core” in favor of the Bangsamoro, which can expand its scope against the central government. This is most worrisome, especially if seen side by side with that other fudge word, “asymmetrical.”

Finally, the negotiators say that the Agreement doesn’t require Charter change. Yet the Agreement includes clauses that the Supreme Court has already rejected in its 2008 decision on the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (Cotabato v. GRP Peace Panel). For instance, the Court struck down in 2008 the term Bangsamoro identity, and yet the 2012 pact uses that same term in almost the same way. Moreover, the full text of the Agreement has not been made public. Critical annexes on “Power Sharing” and “Wealth Sharing” are still unavailable, as far as I know. That similar issue of lack of transparency was similarly raised in 2008.

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For almost two decades already, I have sat on the UP Law Center committee, consisting of law professors from several law schools, to suggest answers to the annual bar exams. During our session for last Sunday’s exam in Political Law, some committee members noted that the questions were not genuine Multiple Choice Questions (or MCQs, as they are now famously called) but rather mere tests of rote memory, even of guesswork and, worse, the right answer sometimes was sometimes obvious on the face of the question itself.

Last year, I welcomed the MCQs as the most radical reform ever introduced in the past century in the licensing system for new lawyers. I praised both the bold vision and careful implementation by the last year’s bar exams chairman, Justice Roberto Abad, former law dean at University of Santo Tomas. Despite initial fears and resistance, we finally adopted the MCQ-type exam that has become the mainstay of bar exams abroad and of board exams given locally for other professions. I still believe that MCQs are the way to go for the Philippine bar exams.

However, my problem with the Political Law questions this year—and there’s still time to remedy this for the third and fourth Sundays of the exam—is that they deviate from what MCQs are supposed to achieve. The goal was to test the candidates’ analytic skills by making him/her choose the best answer from a list of four plausible legal conclusions. Ironically, of the 100 multiple choice questions this year, only seven involve factual settings that call on the examinee to apply the law in actual cases. The other 93 involved the bare remembering of legal provisions, as it were, in a factual vacuum.

Moreover, there is a more basic problem of test design: the exam was simply too long to be completed in four hours. The exam consisted of two parts: the essay (40 percent) and MCQ (60 percent) portions. The essay part comprised 29 questions clustered under 10 “numbers.” The MCQ comprised 100 questions. Even assuming that some MCQs required minimal thinking because the listed options offered no real choices, still there is a problem when the Philippine bar exam is seen as a test of one’s endurance rather than one’s ability to think, a marathon rather than a decathlon. And to think that when the examinees finish their morning exam, they just break for lunch and then proceed to another whole three hours of exams in Labor Law! “Matira ang matibay,” indeed, but wasn’t it supposed to be “matira ang matalino”?

Finally, it’s bad enough that last year’s bar examinees were guinea pigs in a grand experiment, but they’ve revised the exam this year again! Indeed, word is that the allocation of percentages will be revised next year to lower the weight of MCQs to 20 percent.

We must remember that in the Philippines, law professors tailor their teaching to the bar examinations. Like it or not, in the words of education specialists, typical Philippine law schools “teach to the exam.” But when the goal posts keep shifting, it becomes impossible to prepare students for whichever kind of exam will be conjured by the time they graduate. For now, the best available remedy is to mitigate the flaws and uncertainties of the 2012 bar exams by aiming for a reasonable passing rate of at least 30 percent (comparable to last year’s 32 percent rate).

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