Are Dumber Students to Blame for Lowest State Bar Exam Scores in a Decade?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

For the first time in a decade, less than half the folks taking the California state bar exam passed. That’s a seven-percentage-point drop from one year before.

Only 48.6% of applicants in July were successful, according to the State Bar of California Committee of Bar Examiners, but the number is a bit misleading. Only 14% of people retaking the test after failing at least once before were any more successful this time around. That sharply contrasted with first-timers, who passed 61% of the time.

The State Bar did not expand upon why repeat test takers did not benefit from their previous experience. Around 73% of the 8,504 applicants were first-timers. The bar exam is given twice a year, in February and July.

The Los Angeles Times said success rates were dropping all over the country, falling at least five percentage points in 20 states. Scores on the Multistate Bar Exam experienced their largest year-over-year drop since being developed in 1972.

Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, suggested in a memo (pdf) that those taking the exam were “less able” than their predecessors, sparking a heated controversy over bar exams and whose taking them.

There has been a large drop-off nationally in bar applicants. Last year’s law school incoming class was the smallest in 40 years. First-year law students dropped 24% from 2010 to 2013. Schools draw from a wider range of applicants when the pool is smaller and are less selective.

Moeser implied those students weren’t as bright. Seventy-nine law school administrators took issue (pdf) with that in a protest letter. Writing separately (pdf), and more pointedly, but in the same vein, Brooklyn Law School Dean Nicholas Allard said “it is not the students, it’s the test” and called Moeser “offensive”:   

“I am requesting a complete explanation of the motivation and timing of your unprecedented memo, a credible and accurate explanation for the drop in test scores which you report, and a sincere apology to all the law graduates you disparaged and described as “less able” without meaningful, convincing evidence.”

Then again, the low test scores might not have had anything to do with test-taker ability or quality of the exam. It could have been “Barghazi.” Just after the July test, news reports surfaced of anguished test takers in 43 states who were flummoxed when they tried to submit their computerized work at the end of Day 1 of the three-day ordeal and were met with an “Error Message.”   

Some had to wrestle with the computer problem for hours before they could sign off and go to sleep. One person tweeted: “PLEASE HELP! This is HORRIFIC! Now THE MBE WILL BE TOMORROW AND WE DONT KNOW IF THE EXAMS WILL LOAD!! IM HAVING A PANIC ATTACK.”

One successful applicant who didn’t panic is used to performing in pressure situations. Former stripper and pornstar Heather Frances Swift, aka Holly Price, passed the California bar exam, according to Above the Law. She explained:

“How did I do it? Because unbeknownst to many, women in the adult industry are intelligent and can matriculate through a cutthroat tier 3 law school, and pass the hardest bar exam in history.”

She graduated from the Western State University College of Law last year. The school had an 89% bar pass rate in 2013.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Fewer Law School Graduates Pass Bar Exam in California (by Jason Song, Los Angeles Times)

Why Did So Many People Flunk the Bar Exam This Year? (by Natalie Kitroeff, Bloomberg Businessweek)

When Bar Scores Plummet, Who Will Examine the Examiners? (by Tamara Tabo, Above the Law)      

Decline in Bar Exam Scores Sparks War of Words (by Jacob Gershman, Wall Street Journal)

Accusations Fly as State Bar of California Leader Joe Dunn Fights Ouster (by Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

Porn Star Passes Most Difficult Bar Exam in the Country (by Staci Zaretsky, Above the Law)  

Bar Results Drop to Lowest in 10 Years (California State Bar)

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