Why weren't bar exam pass rates an existential crisis in the 1980s?

I blogged about the small improvement in Multistate Bar Exam ("MBE") scores in the July 2016 administration of the test. We won't know what first-time pass rates from ABA-accredited law schools are for some time, but it's fair to assume we should see a small improvement nationally.

The drop in test scores--likely partially caused by a decline in the quality of the applicant pool over the last several years--has caused quite an uproar, particular as the ABA considers clamping down on schools with relatively low pass rates.

But if you look at MBE scores from the 70s and 80s, the peak time for Baby Boomers to be completing legal education, you'll notice that their scores are fairly comparable to the scores in the last two years.

So if MBE scores look a lot like they did back then, why is there such a commotion about them? Perhaps a few reasons.

First, expectations have changed. Gone are the days with the mythic "look to your left, look to your right" fears of dismissal. There is an expectation that virtually all law school enrollees complete their JD, and another expectation that those who secure the JD and take the bar will pass the bar. The challenges are no longer deemed to be the failure rates in law school or the bar exam, but in the process that one must "survive." A dip in bar pass rates,

Second, the fiscal consequences have changed. Indebtedness of students at graduation is quite high (for many), especially when law school loans are coupled with undergraduate loans (and sometimes credit card debt). Indebtedness has outpaced inflation over the decades. For students pressed with this debt, the prospect of failing the bar exam--and likely delaying or losing job opportunities--is more significant.

Third, the bar looks different today, and pass rates may differ despite similar MBE scores. Perhaps the sample size is just a little smaller in the 1980s--and perhaps these jurisdictions with the MBE had disproportionately lower pass rates. There's little question that states that have administered their own bar exams (like Louisiana) can have more inconsistent results. Consider a recent example from Oklahoma, which adopted the Uniform Bar Exam and saw pass rates plunge so significantly that it modified the passing score. Perhaps, then, the MBE score in the 1980s was not as indicative of overall pass rates--but that's more a lack of data on my end.

It's good to see the MBE score improve slightly. In an absolute sense, unfortunately, the pass rates will not approach what they were a few years ago. But while bar pass rates are historically low, the history is worth reflecting upon.