License to practice
The midterm elections gave fresh college graduates a momentary distraction from the overriding concern: landing a job. For many still unemployed, finding employment proper to their degrees requires surmounting another hurdle: passing government licensure examinations.
Breaching this barrier, intended to test their professional readiness to serve as lawyers, CPAs, even teachers, is not easy. Bar exams take the most casualties. The 2012 exam recorded the lowest success rate in 13 years, with less than 18 percent of 5,094 takers passing, and only because the Supreme Court dropped the passing rate to 70 percent.
Had the 75-percent hurdle been maintained, only 361 takers would have passed. But the high court decided that a bar success rate below 8 percent was unacceptable. In exercising clemency, the Supreme Court, according to the Inquirer, followed its “tradition of lowering the passing mark every year.” Associate Justice Martin
Villarama Jr., chair of the 2012 exam committee, said that its judicial intervention in fixing a lower passing rate was “following history” and was also made “in the spirit of the Lenten season.”
For a body highly protective of its reputation, the explanation did not enhance its public image. Why is Lent an excuse for lowering the bar for would-be lawyers? And what is the logic in observing a “tradition” of dropping the passing rate? Cynics will see the management of the bar exam as a metaphor for a judicial system open to arbitrary manipulation.
Justice Villarama suggested that the multiple choice questions, which even he found confusing, might have contributed to the lower passing rate. Perhaps the Supreme Court should get some help from professionals who are trained in developing evaluation instruments.
Flaws in the exam design offer only one of the possible explanations for the low passing rate. It should also be the easiest to fix. But addressing the problem will require the assistance of professionals with the proper expertise.
An obvious plausible explanation poses the more challenging concern: Schools are failing miserably to prepare their students for the practice of law. Francis Lim, corporate lawyer and law professor, has concluded in his Inquirer column (Business, 4/22/13) that this accounts for the dismal bar performance.
Looking at the results of bar exams between 2003 and 2012, Lim noted that only one out of the country’s 118 law schools maintained a 75-percent passing rate. In five of the 10 years, 16 schools failed to produce a single bar passer and 45 others recorded a passing rate of between 1 percent and 25 percent.
Closing down substandard schools is not easy, as the Commission on Higher Education discovered when it tried to clean up the nursing education sector. Fortunately, the Legal Education Board (LEB), which now oversees the law schools, appears less vulnerable to legal and political pressures. The LEB has closed down six underperforming law schools. It is awaiting the reply of about 30 more law schools why they deserve to remain open.
The other licensure examinations and the schools that prepare students for them also need review and reassessment. More students take and fail the licensure examination for teachers, which is required for teaching positions in primary and secondary schools, than the bar exam. In the last exam, 50,000 out of 75,550 examinees failed.
The Department of Education recently announced that it needed to field over 61,000 teachers by the opening of schools next month just to fill the shortage from previous years. Most of the 2,000 public and private higher education institutions in the country offer education programs, but the DepEd anticipates problems in finding qualified applicants.
These examinations for professional practice are high-stake events for which young men and women invest substantial funds to support years of classroom sessions, plus six or more months of review courses. The results will permanently mark the career and life of those who fail to make the grade. Consider the waste of resources and the tragic consequences if airlines could safely land less than 50 percent of the planes they send aloft.
Because they are such career game-changers, these tests also exert an inordinate degree of influence on the conduct of the educational process itself. The danger lies in the temptation for schools to teach to the test. We know these tests are hard to pass. Are they testing for the right competencies?
The knowledge economy, the globalized marketplace, and the more comprehensive concept of human security have raised complex social, political and environmental issues that are changing modern-day transactions among peoples and institutions. We need reassurance that the licensure examinations actually promote into the professions those who can function effectively in the 21st-century environment.
This objective requires greater transparency in how licensure examinations are constructed, corrected and scored. Testing becomes meaningful and fair after we ensure that our schools are providing the appropriate curriculum and the pedagogy our professionals need.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. E-mail: [email protected]
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