MBE scores drop to 34-year low as bar pass rates decline again

On the heels of some good news in recent administrations of the July bar exam comes tough news from the National Conference of Bar Examiners: the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) scores have dropped to a 34-year low, their lowest point since 1984.

For perspective, California's "cut score" is 144, Virginia 140, Texas 135, New York 133. A bar score of 139.5 is comparable to 2015 (139.9) in recent years. One would have to go back to the 80s to see comparable scores: 1982 (139.7), 1984 (139.2), & 1988 (139.8).

I’d hoped that perhaps qualifications of students have rebounded a bit as schools improved their incoming classes a few years ago; perhaps students are putting more effort into the bar than previous years; or other factors. That appears to not be the case this year.

That said, MBE scores may be slightly less predictive of what will happen with actual bar pass rates. the NCBE has pointed out that the rise of the Uniform Bar Exam has led to a number of test-takers transferring scores to new jurisdictions rather than taking a second jurisdiction’s bar—and, presumably, those who pass in one jurisdiction are much more likely to pass in another jurisdiction (accepting that cut scores can vary in some jurisdictions). The UBE points to a few thousand such transfers last year, at least some of whom may have taken the bar exam. But put against more than 40,000 MBE test-takers, the effect, while real, may be small.

Instead, we’re left to watch as results come in state by state. Tracking first-time pass rates (from jurisdictions that share them so far—ideally, ABA graduates would be a better measure, but this works reasonably well for now), declines have been pretty consistent: New Mexico (-14 points), Indiana (-3), North Carolina (+1), Oklahoma (-8), Missouri (-7), Iowa (-3), Washington (-3), and Florida (-4). But in many of these jurisdiction, pass rates were worse in, say, 2015 or 2016.

We’ll know more in the months to come, but it looks like another year of decline will cause some continued anguish in legal education. The increased quality of law school applicants this year will help the July 2021 bar exam look much better.

Note: I chose a non-zero Y-axis to show relative performance.