Nov. 16, 2023
Latest bar exam results – continuing a decade-long decline
For those interested in statistics, the median test taker’s score has declined by about one-third of a standard deviation. When this trend began to reveal itself between 2014 and 2016, law school deans quickly proposed lowering the passing score. That decision hasn’t solved anything, and it only has masked the problem.
Last Thursday evening, the State Bar released the results for the July 2023 California bar examination. The State Bar’s press release noted the 51.5% pass rate represented only a slight drop from last July’s 52.4% pass rate.
If you only focus on the last two years, you miss a decade long trend of increasingly lower performance on the California bar exam. It is time for law schools and the California Supreme Court to admit a problem exists, and the problem is not the bar exam.
By a number of measures, the July 2023 California bar exam produced the lowest collective July performance ever. Let us count the ways.
First, California’s mean Multistate Bar Exam scaled score was the lowest ever for a July bar examination. The State Bar announced it was 1389. In 2013, the mean MBE score for the July California Bar Exam was 1461. As recently as 2019, it was 1431. Before this year, California’s July mean score had never been below 1400.
Second, for the first time, California’s July mean score fell below the national mean score, and by a significant amount. The national mean MBE score this year was 1405. Until very recently, California’s July bar exam takers always scored higher than the national mean, usually by 15-20 points on a 2000-point scale. For example, in July 2011, California bar takers scored 1457, and the national mean was 1438, and in July 2019, California had a mean MBE score of 1431 while the national mean was 1415.
Third, California’s July mean score fell below February bar exam mean scores that were common less than a decade ago. Usually, February bar exam scores are lower due to a higher proportion of repeat takers. But February mean scores for 2011-2015, ranging from 1421 to 1398, were all higher than the 1389 mean score for this July.
Fourth, California’s reduced passing score hides this decline in performance. If the California Supreme Court had retained the 1440 passing score, the overall pass rate for July 2023 would have been below 40%. The decision to lower the passing score to 1390 resulted in basically the same overall pass rate this year as the July 2019 exam, which had a 1440 passing score and an overall pass rate of 50.1%.
This declining score trend on the California bar exam is easily displayed by looking at the last thirty years.
The decline also is apparent for both high and low performing July bar takers, with the decline being greater for lower performing bar takers.
For those interested in statistics, the median test taker’s score has declined by about one-third of a standard deviation.
When this trend began to reveal itself between 2014 and 2016, law school deans quickly proposed lowering the passing score. Initially, the California Supreme Court resisted, but eventually, lowered the passing score to 1390 on a permanent basis during the pandemic in 2020. That decision hasn’t solved anything, and it only has masked the problem.
Whatever the bar exam tests, one thing is known about the difficulty of the bar exam. It doesn’t get easier or harder. As an equated and scaled test, the difficulty of the bar exam remains the same for each administration.
The remaining possibilities are the law graduates taking the test or the law schools admitting students and preparing their graduates to take the test.
At the national level, the decline in bar exam performance correlates highly with how selective law schools are in admitting students. The highest bar exam scores over the last thirty years have correlated with higher ratios of law school applicants to law school matriculants. The highest mean MBE scores have come three years after the ratio of applicants to matriculants was greater than two to one. The highest July mean MBE score was associated with a year when there were 2.3 law school applicants for every student who matriculated. Prior to 2011, the ratio had never dropped below 1.74. Since 2011, it has dropped to as low as 1.54. This reduced selectivity is accompanied by an exceptionally high probability that, once a student is admitted, the law school will graduate that student.
Law schools also have increasingly placed an emphasis on teaching skills and cut back, at least marginally, on the units devoted to learning legal doctrine. All of the California bar exam’s components assesses an applicant’s ability to perform a legal analysis, and the five essays and one performance test assess the skill of performing and writing a legal analysis. The performance test comes closer to simply measuring a test taker’s skill of performing and writing a legal analysis. This shift in teaching emphasis contradicts State Bar studies showing what law school does for its students. In the mid-1980s, the State Bar had novice law students take parts of the July 1985 California bar exam. In doing so, the study revealed that law school helps law students the least with the performance test. In fact, some law students entered law school already able to pass a bar exam performance test.
Ultimately, there is a problem with law graduates performing increasingly less well on the California bar exam. Law students often go deeply into debt to pay law school tuition, and as a group, leave law school less prepared to take the bar exam than they did a decade ago. Lowering the passing score didn’t fix the problem. Developing a new bar exam or alternatives probably won’t fix it either. The State Bar, the California Supreme Court, and law schools need to admit there is a problem before you can identify and solve it.