Sacramento Bee, Should State Adopt Lower Passing Score for the Bar Exam? Current One May Harm Students of Color:
A continuing decline in California’s bar exam pass rate is prompting nearly all of the state’s law school deans to call for an overhaul of the exam.
They suggest the state’s minimum passing score of 144 is too high, compared to the national average of 135, and disproportionately keeps African-American and Latino law graduates from entering the profession. They also say that California graduates who perform better than average, and who would have passed the bar in any other state, are failing in California.
The criticisms, included in a letter signed by 19 of the state’s 20 ABA accredited law school deans, follows the most recent July 2018 bar exam that saw scores fall to a 67-year low. Only 40.7 percent of test takers passed the exam, roughly a 9 percent drop since July 2017. California has seen more applicants fail than pass the exam since 2013.
At a time when the legal profession is looking to build diverse teams, the deans say the cut score of 144 — second highest in the nation — is too limiting for all applicants but especially harms minority graduates.
Newly released data, collected after the July 2018 bar exam, shows that if California adopted the national average, the number of African-American law graduates passing the exam would have doubled.
Nearly 24 percent more Latino law graduates would pass the exam if California adopted the national average score.
California’s cut score, established in 1985, draws a line “without a careful, empirically grounded basis to support it,” read a letter to the Supreme Court of California signed by the law school deans.
“More clients insist on having diverse lawyering teams, and this is an irony,” said UCLA School of Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin “We are this extraordinarily diverse state that is reducing the pool of good lawyers.”
Oregon and Washington lowered their cut scores, making California an outlier. Delaware is the only state with a score requirement higher than California’s at 145, but that state had 172 test takers compared with California’s 8,071 in July. ...
[M]any law schools, concerned about lower pass rates, are focusing too much on the exam to the detriment of students with interests in specialized fields, like cybersecurity or international law, that are not on the bar exam, critics say.
“Many are teaching for the bar rather than success,” Mnookin said. “It threatens to make legal education worse, not better.”
More law schools also are structuring classes in ways that simulate the bar exam, Mnookin said. Some law school teachers who once allowed open book exams are now giving closed book exams - just like the bar exam.
“I’m skeptical,” Mnookin said of this latest change. “In the real world, most of the time (lawyers) can look things up. Real life is not a closed book test, you can check in with someone. Of course you have to have the knowledge, but beyond that you need judgment.”