Sunday, July 24, 2011

My ExamSoft Nightmare . . . with Happy Ending

I almost forgot to post this: I have something important to say about taking the bar with a laptop. During last year’s California exam my laptop crashed in the middle of a Performance Test, and I ended up having to write the remainder of the exam by hand. This post is about how to avoid my experience.

The trouble hit after I had spent about 15-20 minutes reading the PT file, taking notes, and outlining my answer by hand, during which time my computer’s power-save function set in and dimmed the screen. When I turned to begin typing, the computer not wake back up. I tried key taps ("tap . . tap-tap . . .TAP-TAP . . . TAPAKAACCKALAK-TAPTAPTAP!!!"). I tried mouse movements ("scribble . . . scribble-scribble-click-click"). I tried unplugging and re-plugging my power cord . . . nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.

So, after a bit of fretting, I tried rebooting the machine. Nope. This freaked out the ExamSoft program -- it booted straight into ExamSoft and promptly reported an “error” message that left me unable to (1) enter ExamSoft or (2) boot my computer back to Windows. There I was, stuck in blue-screen error land, while everyone else was ferociously typing away.

I raised my hand and looked for my elderly proctor, but got no response. I stood, surveyed the room, and spotted her in a chair near the far end of my row. Fast asleep. I walked over, woke her, and asked for paper to hand-write my exam. After what felt like an eternity she returned, I set my computer aside, and returned to the PT answer I had outlined by hand. Shaken and more than a little stressed I looked down at the page and discovered that nothing -- and I mean NOTHING -- I had scrawled less than a half hour ago made any sense whatsoever. I recognized my handwriting and I knew what the individual words meant, but I couldn’t fathom how they might be related to one and other or point toward a logical legal exposition. (Comparison here to an unpleasant, public acid trip would not be inapt.) Not only could I not remember the structure of my answer, but I could not even remember the basic issue in the fact pattern. It was all the way back to square one for me.

I set to work, re-read the file, wrote my answer by hand, submitted that sucker in a giant paper envelope, and thought the worst was behind me.

Nope.

Remember how I couldn’t reboot my compute or enter ExamSoft? Well, I also had not yet uploaded my answers from the previous day, and I certainly couldn’t upload them now. Half the bar exam was sitting on my computer, with no apparent way to get it to the graders. When the exam ended I entered phase two of my personal little nightmare: an evening trying to multitask (1) being on hold with ExamSoft (the week of the bar exam is an, uh, “busy time” for the two freaking people they have doing customer service) and (2) celebrating with my classmates. Ultimately, with the midnight deadline fast approaching, I found myself:
  1. Sitting on the sidewalk above the 19th Street Oakland BART station,
  2. Drunk,
  3. Poaching internet from some unsecured wireless network,
  4. Listening to a very tired ExamSoft representative recite strange combinatons of letters and numbers for me to type into a command line I had never seen on my computer, all in an effort to
  5. Complete the upload of my precious, precious bar exam answers.
Eventually the answers did upload, I got onto BART, and -- months later -- learned that I passed the bar. So, "all’s well that ends well," right? Well, yes, but it's also "not the destination but the journey that matters."

Here is how to NOT share my journey. ExamSoft, which operates by locking out access to all other files on the computer, also locked out access to whatever file was needed for my computer’s screen to “wake” from power-save mode. I later heard that similar issues can arise with automatic antivirus and updates settings. It turns out that one simple little setting change before the bar exam -- i.e., had I told my computer never to sleep or dim while plugged in -- would have spared me all that time, misery, and anxiety.

And that, Dear Reader, is my advice to you: disable your antivirus software’s automatic updates function and double-check your power-save settings. It will be 20 seconds well spent.

Oh, and one other thing: if you DO end up writing by hand, it’s actually not all that bad . . . really. I promise.

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19 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Patrick. I immediately changed my power settings.

7/24/2011 3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me too. Much appreciated.

7/24/2011 4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And again! Thanks.

7/24/2011 7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Patrick!
Best of luck on the Washington bar!

7/24/2011 9:25 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Thanks.

". . . Washington is a community property state. All property acquired before marriage is presumed . . . " wait, why do I have to do this again, again?? ;)

7/24/2011 9:27 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

(And best of luck to all of you, too. It's stressful and miserable as can be, but Boalties tend to do great, and I'm sure you will, too!)

7/24/2011 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love happy endings.

7/25/2011 6:12 AM  
Anonymous Brandon said...

There I am, day 1, typing out some essays, feeling confident, when I start to notice some of my keys aren't registering. At first its just the "l," "p," "o," and "m" keys that aren't showing up. No matter how many times I hit the key on my laptop, it just doesn't show up.

So I decide, fine, those aren't totally critical letters, and I've already typed a few of them in this essay. So I put the "o" into my clipboard and crtl+v everytime I need it. Its slowing me down a little, but not too bad.

But then more keys go... the y, h, and n. They just won't work. Same story. This is too many to copy and paste, so I decide to just type without them, and I can do a find/replace later to fix the common words at the end.

Then the period and comma keys stop working. At this point, the calm-through-pressure Brandon dissolves into a "what the f-"-Brandon who decides to scrap the whole idea. I type out "ke b ard fai ed-see paper" and start finishing the essay on paper.

When I finished the exam, I high-tailed it over to the closest walmart to buy a cheap USB keyboard and a screwdriver. I tried to fix the laptop keyboard myself, but it turned out that the keyboard ribbon had been slowly detaching itself from the motherboard. It wasn't completely separated, and that's apparently why I had partial and degrading functionality - it was coming apart as I typed. Crazy. I didn't realize it at the time, but further investigation later revealed that the bindings had completely melted, which was likely the result of the intense summer studying and typing that I had put this keyboard through in July. Perhaps there is such a thing as studying too much...

Anyways, it all worked out. In the end, I had handwritten two of my exams and typed four (using the USB keyboard on the second day of essays). And I survived and passed.

The moral of the story is the same as Patrick's: if anything goes wrong, stay calm, hand-write, and you'll do just fine.

Best of luck, Boalties!

7/26/2011 4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm afraid to ask this...

Does anyone have experience with uploading their exam after the deadline? Like 30-45 minutes after?
Supposing I did that, because I'm foolish and forgetful, am I a goner???

7/29/2011 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to speculate, since I have no experience with it, but I seem to recall some stories about this from years past. You may want to inquire with the Authority as to how they handle it.

7/29/2011 2:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. The official position seems to be that they don't grade anything no uploaded on time. But I will see if I can get more details on the phone from someone in the coming week.

For future bar-takers: No matter how done you feel at the end of that last day, it's not over until you've uploaded!

8/01/2011 2:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Software trouble plagued the summer '04 CA bar, too, although it may have had something to do with a bad call by the proctors. Writing by hand is no burden whatsoever. I can't imagine relying on a machine.

8/01/2011 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ExamSoft is still with problems. Although in school they use Examsoft to 'prepare us' on the program(?). Several problems have been experienced by students, including myself such as: The multiple choice section will move your answers forward, or drop an answer. Yes, this happened to me my answers on one section moved forward and dropped the very first question. Then when downloading another exam the program said the download was complete, after all who would walk out when the proctor is reminding you to 'download', right? Only later, a week later to finally have Examsoft sending email notices to 'download' the program. The 'download' was an exam! The Professors, Registration who is responsible for running the exams and ExamSoft, and the Deans do not believe this 'computer program' has any faults? Computers and programs are perfect, unless of course the program says there is an 'error.' Yes, there was an 'error' notice when the program moved all the questions and also stated one question was not answered, but which one? Then you have a professor permit his TA's to write some exam questions and answers for multiple choice but not with four choices such as; a,b,c,and d. No, they have to be different and have a few questions with an 'e' to select. Unfortunately, the 'e' was not on my screen to select from.

I would like to know exactly who controls the answers to all the schools questions, how are they downloaded? My next question is who is watching over our answers and where are they transmitted to? Are they transmitted to a main program at the school or test location and then some mega transfer (possibly a physical mega tega beta bite portable brain) is sent to the ExamSoft control location?

How do we know our answers are not changed by some unloving person at ExamSoft? What about hackers, afterall hackers have broken into the Pentagon and US Senators computer systems so how do we know ExamSoft is all so secure?

Why can't we have an immediate downloaded copy on our computer so we know our answers are 'secure'?

I know the answers have moved on one of my tests and I know others experienced the same on other tests. I know I downloaded the completed exam as did others only to be notified that particular exam was not received. This cannot be new.

Has anyone else at other schools or BAR testing locations experienced similar issues?

7/03/2012 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Ruby Badcoe said...

You write your exam by hand? That was tough! I think the school should have a data recovery plan for these cases. A back-up file can be a lifesaver. But the good news was you passed the exam! And yes, all’s well that ends well.

12/06/2012 12:27 PM  
Anonymous The Journeyman said...

SOFTEST 11 NIGHTMARES—Beware of “It’s the Journey that Counts?”
New Revision “11”of SofTest. ExamSoft can pose a nightmare that detracts considerably from many essay exam scores. Notwithstanding the reported problems (rf., blog) with its earlier version, the new rev 11 is fraught with worse issues. During my exam several people sitting within a long-arms reach—in fact all but one—cited problems, half major problems, some prompting finalization on paper, and one who nearly heaved his computer in disgust. All but one of these people failed and some by a matter of a few points.
Loss of Keys. The new release 11 appears to add more headaches than new features. These include complete system shutdown, blank-out of screens, loss of keys, duplicity of key strokes, and reboot errors. There can be an issue with the O, P, M, backspace, return, space, and likely a few other keys. While these may be lost/dead, others such as the tab key and wireless mouse may display other malfunction. One or more key strokes may release certain “call functions” back to windows even without a reboot. In honesty, other contributors to this blog indicate some of these errors were indeed in the prior rev/version of SofTest.*
*Note: To be objective, there is another potential cause to the problem of dead keys. A laptop, or any keyboard for that matter, is set-up with electrical contact where digital signals are converted. Indeed, one such contact corresponds (roughly) with the keys described in an earlier post. In some instances this is due to a keyboard malfunction that may be remedied by cleaning and reinserting the keyboard cable.
Exam Rectification. It can be a nightmare to negotiate software errors during an exam. A normal first impression when encountering during an exam is that it is your computer (hardware) that is malfunctioning. You aimlessly look for a power problem, a loose keyboard connection, perhaps a wireless mouse connector. Then one might conclude it is a virus. But no virus should interfere with SofTest function—except theoretically upon reboot. None of these is probable but under pressure one resorts to his/her primal computer instincts. AND, of course, if it is a software problem, you’re nearly helpless so you don’t want to think this worse case scenario. Unless your screen is totally blank, it is a gutsy play to take ExamSoft advice and reboot your system in the middle of an (expensive) exam.*
No Support. ExamSoft does post extra personnel to man the phones during/after such high user exams as with the bar. These personnel , however, only hold hands in an effort to get an upload within the prescribed period. Finding a technician to resolve, or even speak with, about program malfunctions, per se, is another issue.
No Keystroke Memory. The ExamSoft program does not track keystrokes, so there is little direct evidence of struggle outside of sloppy sentence structures and miss-spelled words. (If you report during an exam, this likewise will garner no sympathy from exam graders. ExamSoft, and the testing institution, are thusly insulated from liability—both legal and moral in their eyes.
Error Free Usage. The users free from problems with SofTest are those that write their exam from start to finish with minimal/no redress, change, etc. The user writes from an outline and doesn’t go back to add, cut and paste, or otherwise correct his/her writing. She pops to the top of the ST menu to move to the next question, completing in the same fashion until all essays are done without encountering issues with ST. Problems arise when one uses cut-paste, format/tabbing and jumping back to a question to insert new thoughts—call me stupid.
ExamSoft Corrrective Action: Why ExamSoft hasn’t addressed these problems may be that it is under little pressure to correct them.
No Refund. You’re not going to get much sympathy from either the exam administrator or ExamSoft: A common response is “Everyone had a chance to handwrite the exam. “
The Journeyman

1/23/2013 3:03 PM  
Anonymous California Bar Exam Review Course said...

Very interesting topic and thanks for great posting.

California Bar Exam Review Course

9/06/2013 3:09 AM  
Blogger Russell said...

I just took the MA bar exam for the first time and had the same experience as Journeyman. Regular missing keystrokes, frozen keys in middle of a word, some key appeared onscreen, others did not, press a key and get nothing, unable to Bksp to rewrite entire word correctly, unable to Space forward, ultimately frozen on a garbled word. TOTAL EPIC keystroking failure in the SoftTest software.

Ultimately I arrowed ahead, left a lot of the garbled words and tried to retype cleanly after them. The key registering/freezing issue was intermittant but incessant. Absolute nightmare. I charged ahead as best I could given the time constraints. Executive decision that it was better to forge ahead with partial garbled words than trying to switch to writing.

I am expecting no mercy from the graders. I am beyond furious. Called Examsoft after the bar - they remotely pulled a bunch of log files from my laptop and said the techies would look into root cause and get back with me - THAT was two weeks ago. I followed up again today demanding an update tomorrow, although I know it will go nowhere. I guess I'm just going to give them grief until I have to retake the exam again in July. I will hand write. Just an epic Examsoft/SoftTest nightmare.



3/17/2014 9:39 PM  
Blogger Cordia Remsen said...

Those are really good pointers we can learn from. Anyways, the best we can do in those situations is to step back, give the problem another look see, and lay out a set of contigencies in our heads, which can go from replacement to simple repair. I hope everything is doing well by now. All the best!

Cordia Remsen @ RB's Computer Service

9/22/2014 8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why or why does anyone take the bar exam on a computer...do you really like putting all those years of your life into the hands of someone else? I've taken four bar exams on paper and passed every one of them easily. No stress, no mess.

10/14/2014 8:03 PM  

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