Want to be a doctor? A lawyer? COVID-19 cases are rising, but these high-stakes exams are in-person only – USA TODAY

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Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the full name of the group that administers the MCAT. It is theAssociation of American Medical Colleges. The story also misstated the title of Dr. Arghavan Salles, who is a scholar in residence at Stanford University School of Medicine. In addition, the story has been updated to reflect that Stanford and the University of Minnesota have said they will make the MCAT optional for the rest of 2020.

Most facilities that offer standardizedtests have canceled test dates or offered remote testing as COVID-19 cases rise.Buttwo major tests are still offered onlyin-person.

The Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and some states' bar exams require sit-down testing, even in coronavirus hot spots. In the case of the bar,rooms can have hundreds of people.

The exams serve as high-stakes gateways for two of the country's most prestigious, highest-pressure and lucrative fields: They determine who gets into medical school and whether law school graduates can be cleared to become attorneys.

Tests are typically held in-personto prevent cheating and protect the integrity of the exams. For test takers, in-person exams meana decisionbetween caution, as coronavirus cases in the USA surpass 4.1 million, and achieving what for some has been a lifelong dream.

During the pandemic, the Association of American Medical Colleges canceled MCATs scheduled for March, Apriland most of May. For tests since then, including one scheduled for Thursday, the AAMC shortened the test,making it available three times on each scheduled day, instead of once per day.This allowsincreased capacity and ensures that test centers will follow social distancing practices, the association said.

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"Starting a test at 6 a.m., meaning one might have had to travel the night before or start driving very early in the morning, does not seem right,"said Dr. Arghavan Salles,a scholar in residence atStanford University School of Medicine."On the other hand, the last administration of the day ends at midnight, which is later than anyone should have to be taking a high-stakes exam."

Many students have little choice or recourse. The MCAT is used as the primaryindicator for somebody's readiness for medical school, said Sahil Mehta, a radiologist at Harvard Medical School and founder of MedSchoolCoach, amedical school admissions consultancy.

"It's nearly impossible for the AAMC to shift to an online test on the fly" because it's long more than seven hours compared witha typical Graduate Record Exam's four hours and has difficult material, Mehta said.

The solution, he said, lies in medical schools, which muststrongly considermaking the MCAToptional in this years' admissions.

Stanford Medical School, University of Minnesota Medical Schooland University of Washington School of Medicine have said the MCAT examwill be optional for the remainder of 2020, for those who have not taken the exam. At the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, MCAT exam waivers will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Students said the AAMC should do more to protectthem.

"How is it that the pandemic that required mass cancellations back in March is smaller than the pandemic that current test takers are facing?"wrote Students for Ethical Admissions, anorganization founded to address MCAT takers' coronavirus concerns, in a letter to the AAMC and medical colleges.

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Dr. Karen Mitchell,AAMCsenior director of admissions testingservices, said the group made changes to address the pandemic's disruption. For instance, AAMC says most exams have no more than eight to 15 test takers in each room, and all rooms have social distancing protocols and are filled below capacity.

"We developed our health and safety standards ... in consultation with epidemiology and immunology expertsand following evidence-basedCDCguidelines," she said in a statement to USA TODAY.

The student group said some test sites didn't follow all the safety measures outlined by the AAMC.In some cases, testing sites didn't sanitize materials frequently used by test takers, require mask-wearing or take applicants' temperature, the group alleged.

The student group said on Twitter itreceived seven positive reports of COVID-19 in students who took their MCAT. These students could have either transmitted or contracted the virus at the testing center, the group said.

Some studentslive or are in close contact with others who would be at high risk for complications from COVID-19, Salles said. These studentshave to risk not only exposing themselvesbut their families and loved ones.

"These pressures likely disproportionately affect applicants in rural settings or with fewer resources exactly the type of applicant we need in medicine," she said.

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In-person bar exams aremoving ahead in nearly half of states, despite concerns from law school students, who said the planned administrationis uncertain and unsafe given states' rapid increases in COVID-19 cases.

One such state is Arizona, whose highest court denied apetition July 1 to allow first-time test takers to skip the exam. The exam will proceed as scheduled July 28 and 29 at the Phoenix Convention Center.

Alexis Boumstein, one of three law school graduates who petitioned the court to amend its rules, told the Arizona Republic, a USA TODAY Network newspaper, thatsome graduates worry about catching the virus during the state's exam.Typically, more than 500 people take the Arizona bar over two days.

Othersfear that weeks of intensivestudy could be ruined if they get sick and cannot take the high-stakes test.

"Applicants should not be asked to choose between their health or sitting for the exam to receive their licensure," the petition said.

Other states changed their testing structures. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners canceled the state'sbar exam at the end of July, replacing it with an online test Aug. 18.

Moving the test online is "one less health risk," Cathren Page, a professor atMercer University School of Law in Macon, Georgia, told the Tallahassee Democrat, a USA TODAY Network paper.

I felt certain that someone I knew was probably going to die or become disabled as a result of this process ... or they would have to forgo the bar," she said.

Contributing: Anne Ryman, Arizona Republic;CD Davidson-Hiers, Tallahassee Democrat


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Want to be a doctor? A lawyer? COVID-19 cases are rising, but these high-stakes exams are in-person only - USA TODAY

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