Paul L. Caron

Friday, September 18, 2015

Bloomberg: Bar Exam Scores Drop To Their Lowest Point In Decades — Unprepared Students Can't Handle A Harder Test

Bar ExamFollowing up on yesterday's post, More Bar Exam Carnage?:  Bloomberg, Bar Exam Scores Drop to Their Lowest Point in Decades: Unprepared Students Can't Handle a Harder Test:

American law graduates are increasingly getting a taste of failure before they start their careers. Performance on the bar exam has continued to slip, early results show.

The average score on the multiple-choice portion of the July test fell 1.6 points from the previous year, reaching its lowest level since 1988, according to data provided to Bloomberg by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The mean score on this summer's exam was 139.9, down from 141.5 in July 2014.

"It was not unexpected," says Erica Moeser, the president of the NCBE, which creates the multiple choice part of the test. "We are in a period where we can expect to see some decline, until the market for going to law school improves."

Law schools have been admitting students with lower qualifications who "may encounter difficulty" when taking the bar, Moeser says. 

About a dozen states have published their pass rates, and the numbers are even worse than last year, when graduates performed historically badly. Pass rates for students who took the test in July were down in most states that have reported results.

“The decline in student quality continues to affect the results,” says Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law. As fewer people apply to law schools, the programs have started filling their campuses with students who aren’t as qualified as they used to be. That strategy produced a crisis in 2014, when scores on the multiple-choice portion of the test registered their largest year-over-year drop in four decades. 

The poor showing a year ago prompted a debate between law school deans and the organization that creates the exam. Deans said the test was unfair and that a software glitch that made it harder to submit test results may have hurt some students. The NCBE's Moeser pointed her finger right back, charging that schools were letting in students who didn't have a good shot at passing the test.

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Robert, in a boom year for law schools (i.e., 2010), you are student with at least average qualifications. You would have median credentials for a lower Tier 1 school (e.g. Denver, Loyola, Northeastern). The average student in the average year passes the bar with 98% certainty. The students at risk of failing are those that have LSAT scores more like 145-152, and/or sub 3.0 undergrad GPA's. They used to be almost non-existent in law school, now they are probably 30% of enrollees.

Posted by: JM | Sep 21, 2015 6:49:11 AM

On paper, I may have been seen as a student with "lower qualifications." My LSAT was only a 162, my undergraduate GPA was only about 3.4, and I took 14 years to earn my bachelors degree. I was accepted into the evening program of a Tier 1 law school. I worked full time and went to law school in the evening. I only graduated in the top 40% of my class. I passed the VA bar, and if I can do it, any dummy can do it.

Millions of people have passed the bar exam. Perhaps the dropping passage rates is also a reflection of the entitled "Special Snowflake" mentality of those taking the bar in recent years. The decline in student quality may be more than just an academic decline...

Posted by: Robert | Sep 20, 2015 10:23:42 PM

Loyola law school form 990 from 2014 - Dean Victor J. Gould - $392,505. some high percentage of which is straight-up looted from the federal "grad plus" student loan program.

400 student classes. 60% of graduates in long term legal jobs.

$47,750 per year tuition.

Zero sympathy.

Posted by: terry malloy | Sep 18, 2015 7:26:06 PM

Law Schools should be forced to pay the student loans of law students who cannot pass the bar.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Sep 18, 2015 6:56:31 PM

Make it Pass?Fail like the Ivies. Give trophies for showing up.

Posted by: Yehiel | Sep 18, 2015 4:11:50 PM

This now is an existential problem for many law schools, which is the reason for the screaming and gnashing of teeth. Recall the "bar pass" regulations for accreditation with the ABA. Within a year or two, multiple schools will lose their access to student loan pie.

Posted by: Jojo | Sep 18, 2015 2:14:24 PM

Anyone who thinks that a dean's job is cushy has no clue. Everyone shoots at you; no one thanks you. I have said no every time I've been asked, and will continue to do so.

Having said this, I agree that the function of the bar exam is to protect consumers. The fact that law students are being admitted with lower paper credentials is no reason to lower standards for entering practice. The solution is to continue to insist on adequately rigorous standards for admission.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | Sep 18, 2015 11:02:45 AM

Some profs are already pointing out that this is a minor decline relative to what would be expected relative to the drop in LSAT scores year over year. However, any decline from this already low baseline is going to lead to a higher percentage of failures, and I believe (though I could be incorrect) that the 1.6 decline is scaled score derives from a higher number of questions missed than a 1.6 decline higher up the scale because of the normalized nature of the test. This is how it would work with LSAT at least.

Posted by: JM | Sep 18, 2015 8:13:33 AM

In other news, water wet.

Posted by: terry malloy | Sep 18, 2015 7:07:32 AM

Do not cave, Ms. Moeser. You are right; the deans are wrong. They also are fearful for their cushy jobs.

This profession is about clients, then the bar, then the law students or apprentices, then the law schools - in that order!

Posted by: Jojo | Sep 18, 2015 4:41:35 AM