California Bar Results Continue to Decline

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We may have a lot of sunny days here in California but, it may not feel very sunny for a majority of those who just took (and failed) the California bar exam. The State Bar of California released preliminary statistics for the February 2017 California Bar Exam via press release this weekend and the numbers do not look good.

Out of 4,439 applicants who completed the exam, only 1,532 of applicants passed the General Bar Exam. That is a pass rate of only 34.5 percent. Another way of looking at it is that 65.5 percent who completed the February 2017 California bar exam failed it. While we have seen results this low in the past, it appears to be part of a bigger trend, nationally, toward lower and lower pass rates.

The Executive Director of the State Bar of California. Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker said, “Regrettably the pass rate shows a continuing decline, a trend happening nationally.” She went on to say that “the State Bar is committed to a better understanding of the problem to determine how to address it.”

It appears the first steps to addressing the problem of declining bar pass rates will involve a “series of studies” the first of which is to begin on Monday, May 15th.

This initial phase of the study will focus on examining what the California bar examiners refer to as the “cut score.”

Here are some of the preliminary statistics from the February 2017 General Bar Exam:

  • 4,439 applicants completed the exam (it is unclear how many showed up and did not complete, would be interesting to have those numbers)
  • 1,153 (26.0 percent) were first-time applicants
  • The pass rate for first-time applicants was 39.0 percent
  • 3,286 applicants were repeat applicants
  • The pass rate for repeat applicants was 33.0 percent

Here are additional statistics broken out by school type. As usual, graduates of ABA law schools enjoyed the highest pass rates, with a distinctly higher pass rate enjoyed by graduates of California ABA law schools versus out-of-state ABA law schools (source: the State Bar of California).

School Type First-Timers Repeaters
California ABA 45% 46%
Out-of-State ABA 39% 34%
California Accredited (but not ABA) 18% 15%
Unaccredited: Fixed-Facility 25% 2%
Unaccredited: Correspondence 26% 11%
Unaccredited Distance Learning 18% 7%

So what does all of this mean? How does this affect those who are taking the July 2017 bar exam? Will the “cut score” go up? Will it change at all for the July 2017 bar round?

It is not yet clear whether the cut score or grading will change at all for the July 2017 bar exam. But, what is clear is that the State Bar is acknowledging publicly, for the first time that I know of, that there is a problem with the bar pass rates. Given the heat from many law school deans in the past few years about declining pass rates, the State Bar may also be feeling some pressure to address what some have call an abysmal pass rate.

There are a few things about this press release that I think are worth noting – and that is what we do not know, what the preliminary numbers fail to show:

Attorney Takers Not Yet Included in the Preliminary Statistic
These preliminary statistics do not appear to include those taking the Attorney’s Exam (note that the statistics only refer to those sitting for the General Exam). In recent years, attorney takers have had a very low pass rate in comparison to those taking the General Exam. So it will be interesting to see if attorney takers did worse on the February 2017 bar round (compared with prior bar rounds).

Those Who Did Not Complete the Exam are Not Counted as Part of Pass/Fail Rate?
The State Bar press release refers only to the number of applicants “who completed the exam.” We know from the press release that this number was 4,439 and that out of that number, only 1,532 of applicants passed.

What we do not know is how many applicants may have shown up but, failed to complete all three days. I am not suggesting that the State Bar is hiding anything. These preliminary statistics are that: preliminary. However, I am not certain the State Bar will ever release the number of those who did not complete the exam. Given that the pass rates appear to be based only upon applicants who completed the exam, the actual pass rate (taking into account those that did not stick it out the full three days) could actually be worse than 34.5%.

Incidentally, the State Bar’s press release still refers to the California bar exam as a three day exam, consisting of “six essay questions, and two performance tests.” I am assuming this is a mistake, but it is not exactly comforting that they are still referring to the three day exam.

I am not a believer in conspiracy theories surrounding the bar exam. But, the pass rates are declining, that is clear. This is, as the Director of the State Bar pointed out, part of a “national trend.” The pass rates for the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) are actually not much better than California’s bar pass rate. As of July 2017, twenty-seven states will have adopted the UBE for their state bar examination. With pass rates in the mid 40 percentile on the UBE, low pass rates are certainly not unique to California.

I do think it is a good thing that the State Bar has publicly announced that they are looking into the problem of declining pass rates. Whether this is about the test or about examinees being adequately prepared – is really the question, I think. Are people adequately prepared by their law schools? Are the entrance requirements to get into law schools – in an age of declining law school enrollment – perhaps lower? It has been known for some time that many California law schools (faced with low enrollment) are digging deeper into the applicant base, admitting students with lower LSAT scores and lower GPAs in order to make enrollment. If so, does this mean that law school admittees are less qualified (lower LSAT scores, for example)? And is the LSAT even the best way to determine whether someone should be admitted to law school? Some law schools have chosen to accept the GRE now in lieu of the LSAT for law school admissions.

Times are changing in California
What is clear is that times are definitely changing. The California bar exam (despite their press release still referring to the old, three-day exam) is now just two days. The performance test portion of the exam has been cut down from 6 hours of testing to only 90 minutes. These are significant changes. Still, I do not see anything from the bar examiners that suggest they will change the grading or the “cut score” in time for the July 2017 bar exam. But, time will tell.

In the meantime, what works in terms of passing the California bar exam is the same: becoming extremely adept at writing and taking MBEs. There are still five essays to write. So not much has changed there. But, the performance test (still worth two essays) is now only 90 minutes. Some might think this cut in time would make it easier. But, from the sample 90 minute performance test provided by the State Bar, it does not look easier. There is virtually the same amount of material to get through (in the old, 3-hour PT), but now far less time to do it in. This new 90 minute version will most definitely be easier for those who can think fast on their feet, which, quite frankly is a pretty good trait for a would be attorney.

What do you think about the low pass rates? What do you think about the new 2-day bar exam in California, do you think it will be easier or harder or the same?

I will address how I think examinees should prepare differently for the new, 2-day California bar exam in our upcoming, free “How to Pass the California Bar Exam Workshop” There is still space available in this workshop. Click here to sign up!

Lisa Duncanson
Founder/Program Director
Bar None Review and Bar Exam Cram Session