Barrister-to-be Sodslaw sits the practice version of the new Bar Course Aptitude Test (BCAT) – and isn’t impressed.
I need to start by making a declaration of interest, of sorts. I hate aptitude tests.
I think they’re little more than crude indicators of your ability to second-guess the person who wrote the questions.
I generally have no idea – and no way of knowing – how many assumptions I am supposed to make, and whether the ambiguities in the questions are deliberate or rogue.
Unfortunately for me the BCAT – at least in its practice test form – appears to be no exception. I have serious concerns about my chances of passing the BCAT, not because I doubt my ability, but because I think the person who wrote the questions got the answers wrong.
Take, for example, the first section, which tests inference skills. For the “example” questions we are given the following paragraph…
We are then given the following proposition:
We have to decide whether this proposition is true (beyond reasonable doubt), probably true (more likely to be true than false), probably false, false, or whether there is “insufficient data” (if the facts provide no basis for judging one way or the other).
The answer to this question, apparently, is “probably true”, because “as is common knowledge, most people in their early teens do not show so much serious concern with broad social problems.”
Hang on – “common knowledge”? How commonly accepted does a fact have to be before I can be confident of using it? What if I happen not to share this particular bit of social prejudice? What if I come from a country where it’s simply not true? Whose shoes do I have to put myself in when answering these questions? Do I read the Mail, or the Guardian? When does inference become speculation? The example goes on to recognise that some of the students may just have volunteered to attend because they wanted a weekend outing. How am I supposed to begin quantifying this?
The next proposition:
This, we’re told, is “probably false”, because “the students’ growing awareness of these topics probably stemmed at least in part from discussions with teachers and classmates.” Isn’t this just speculation?
This, apparently, is “false”, because “it is given in the statement of facts that the topics of race relations and means of achieving world peace were the problems chosen for discussion.” Again, this has to be wrong. The statement of facts just says that “the topics of race equality and means of achieving lasting world peace were discussed”. This could mean that they were the only things that were discussed, or that they were discussed alongside other things. The proposition is likely to be false, of course. It’s even very likely to be false. But it is not necessarily false. The instructions for this section state that the answer is “false” if the proposition is “definitely” false, “either because it misinterprets the facts given, or because it contradicts the facts or necessary inferences from those facts.” Neither applies here. Isn’t this exactly the kind of nuance we’re trained, at law school, to spot?
These are just a few examples, and they’re only from the first section of the practice test, but the other sections are similarly problematic – riddled with ambiguity and hidden subjectivity (the answer to one of the practice questions depends entirely on what you understand “weaker tax laws” to mean). Perhaps I’m nit-picking. Perhaps I’m just mistaken (and I know someone will correct me in the comments if that’s the case).
Of course these are the kinds of skills which are necessary for a career at the Bar, but they have to be demonstrated in an open, reasoned argument. They can’t simply be reduced to a set of multiple-choice questions where the answers are, apparently, arbitrary.
In action: the BCAT