Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

White Paper: July 2019 MBE Mean Score

Following up on my previous post, July 2019 Bar Exam Pass Rates Are Poised To Rise, As MBE Scores Increase At Highest Rate In 11 Years:  Adam Maze (Senior Academics Director, Kaplan Bar Review), White Paper - July 2019 MBE Mean Score: Depends on Your Lens:

This autumn, recent law graduates and law school personnel anxiously awaited the results of the July 2019 bar exam. For law graduates, their individual results would largely determine whether they would become a member of the legal profession or have to put their ambitions on hold. For law school officials, aggregate results could signal institutional success or a lack thereof. Overall, however, there was cause for optimism. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) reported in September that MBE ® scores had rebounded from the decline observed the prior year. But, what degree of optimism was warranted? And, more importantly, does this optimistic report portend future upward trends in the average MBE ® score and, in turn, in pass rates? 

Most commentary on the July 2019 MBE® results confidently noted that the increase observed in this past summer’s average MBE ® score had positive implications for pass rates for this past summer’s bar exams. And indeed, pass rates in most jurisdictions have increased. But, as for its implications for pass rates on future bar exams, the commentary—to the extent it has addressed this concern—has been varied and couched in circumspection. Some have cautiously suggested that the recent results might signal a turning point in bar passage rates after several years of depressed results. Others have offered a combined sense of uncertainty and pessimism about the long-term significance of the July 2019 MBE ® results, noting that a similar increase observed in the July 2017 MBE ® mean score was immediately followed the next July with a not insignificant decrease in the MBE ® mean score.

To get a sense of where things stand when it comes to average MBE ® scores, we suggest looking at the data from multiple perspectives, that is, through different ways of framing the data. Prioritizing one frame over another might simplify the story we tell ourselves, but it also risks that we tell ourselves a story that—if not wrong—is unduly incomplete. ...


Figure 4’s black horizontal line represents the average July MBE ® score since 1980. The y-axis has been changed to reflect deviations from this average (142). Roughly 80 percent of the data points in this chart fall within its blue band, signaling a July MBE ® mean score within two points of the historical average. The period from 2006 through 2013 is not only a period of high average MBE ® scores relative to the years since 2013 but also relative to this entire span of years since 1980. None of the average July MBE ® scores recorded from 2006 through 2013 are within a point of the historical average. All eight data points from this particular window are on the upper edge of the blue band or above it—and sometimes significantly above it. In terms of average July MBE ® scores, the period from 2006-2013 represents more of an outlier than the years since 2013.

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