Why are bar exam scores improving?

The news that the mean scaled MBE score has risen for the second year in a row and is now the highest since 2013 is good news for law schools and law students. I've been tweeting the results of the comparative overall pass rates in some jurisdictions as they roll in. It shows that, as expected with an increase in the MBE, passing rates are up in most jurisdictions. That's helped by jurisdictions that have lowered the cut score: Oregon, for instance, reduced its passing score from 142 to 137, and its passing rate rose from 58% in July 2016 to 79% in July 2017. (The low point of MBE scores came in July 2015).

But, why? In 2014, I noted that it looked like bar pass rates would have a bleak (at least short-term) future. In 2016, scores slightly improved; and here in 2017, they've improved quite a bit (though well behind where they were in 2013 and the preceding decade of relatively high scores).

Schools that saw their declines in bar pass rates in September to November of 2014 would not have been able to take action on the admissions front until they admitted students who began in August 2015. (Indeed, some might have hoped it was a one-time blip and might not have reacted even then.) But we could look at a couple of things to see if their practices changed.

First, it turns out that the bottom end of the incoming classes in August 2014 had worse predictors than August 2012--but the July 2017 test-takers scored much better than the July 2015 test-takers. A whopping 146 law schools saw a decline in their 25th percentile LSAT incoming classes (i.e., the cohort most likely to fail the bar--relative, of course, to each school's LSAT profile and each jurisdiction's cut score) in that two-year period. 29 held steady in their 25th percentile, and just 14 saw an improvement.

If anything, then, we should expect bar pass scores to be much more this past July! But we also have another factor: academic dismissals. Note that the incoming class from August 2014 may have had worse credentials, but they would have completed their first year in May 2015, shortly after some schools would have been aware of the significant drop in the bar pass rates.

Professor Jerry Organ tracked attrition and noted an uptick in academic dismissals among that August 2014 incoming class by 2015--and before they took the July 2017 bar. Overall first-year attrition was up slightly, from 6.25% for the Class of 2015 to 7.04% for the Class of 2017. But attrition rose the most at schools with the lowest LSAT profiles. Among schools with a median LSAT profile below 150, attrition rose from 12.1% to 17.1% in that two-year stretch, while declining slightly at all other institutions.

Surely that can offset some of the worsening LSAT profiles. But it can hardly explain all of it. I wonder if institutions have found better strategies of intervening with at-risk students, or providing more robust bar exam support for at-risk students. Perhaps in the last couple of years, students have been sufficiently scared of failing the bar to study harder or earlier (we know that over time, a bar exam test-taker's score will improve). These are matters that institutions may have the data to examine (or may be in the process of collecting). Regardless, it remains good, albeit still slightly mysterious news--and those in legal education hope that it is the beginning of a continued trend of good news.

How a change in the bar exam cut score could alter California legal education

Virtually all the deans of law schools in California, of ABA-accredited and California-accredited schools, have come out in favor, at multiple stages, of lowering the cut score for the California bar exam. The score, 144, is the second-highest in the country and has long been this high. Given the size of California and the number of test-takers each year, even modest changes could result in hundreds of new first-time passers each test administration.

The State Bar, in a narrowly-divided 6-5 vote, recommended three options to the California Supreme Court: keep the score; lower it to 141.1; or lower it to 139. As I watched the hearing, the dissenters seemed more in favor of keeping it at 144. At least some of the supporters seem inclined to support the 139 score, or something even lower, but recognized the limitations of securing a majority vote on an issue. Essentially, however, the State Bar adopted the staff recommendation and offered these options to the California Supreme Court.

The Court could adopt none of these options, but I imagine it would be inclined to adopt a recommended standard, and probably the lowest standard at that, 139. (The link above includes the call from the Supreme Court to evaluate the appropriateness of the cut score, a hint, but hardly definitive, that it believes something ought to be done.)

What surprised me, however, is that there would be such unanimity among law deans, because the impact on legal education could be quite significant--and not benefit all institutions equally. Put another way, I understand the obvious short-term benefit for all institutions--some number of law school graduates who previously might have failed the exam would pass, redounding to the benefit of the institution and those graduating classes.

But that, in part, assumes that present circumstances remain the same. Invariably, they will not. Let me set up a few things that are likely to occur, and then game out some of the possible impacts these changes might have on legal education--all on the assumption that the cut score drops from 144 to 139.

First, the number of passers will increase fairly significantly. About 3480 people passed the bar when 8150 took it in July 2016 bar exam. That included about 3000 first-time passers among 5400 first-time test-takers. Bar test-takers are also up significantly this test (in part likely because of the reduction from three days to two). We should expect that number in this cohort to rise to about 4100 passing--and probably more this administration, given that there were more test-takers. We may expect more out-of-state attorneys, or people who'd failed and given up, to start attempting the test again. Statistics also indicate that the greatest increase in new attorneys will tend to be racial minorities, who have historically passed the bar exam at lower rates.

The change will also disproportionately benefit California-accredited schools: while ABA-accredited schools on the whole would see a 17% increase in pass rates, California-accredited schools would see about a 70% increase in pass rates. (Granted, far fewer graduates from these schools take the bar--only about 100 passed the July 2016 bar exam.)

Additionally, we know that this year's test-takers scored better nationwide. If that trend translates to California, too, we would expect a few hundred more on top of that figure. And we may also expect an increase of test-takers to linger for a long period of time if more people are attracted to California because of it has a modestly easier test to pass.

This obviously, in the very short term, primarily benefits those students who scored between a 139 and a 144, but would have failed the bar exam, and schools with those student populations. In the slightly longer term, it will benefit students who scored less than a 139 and on repeat have a much higher chance of securing a 139 than a 144.

About 700 to 800 (or potentially even more, depending on the volume of test-takers) extra attorneys into the system per July, and some smaller number of extra attorneys per February, should slowly exert changes to attorney prices in California, as Professor Michael Simkovic has reasoned. More lawyers means more competition, which means that prices should drop, particularly among attorneys catering to more price-sensitive clients (no one thinks Vault 100 law firms will start slashing California salaries!). It's worth noting, too, that this change may be more gradual at first--there has been a drop in test-takers overall, so the increase in pass rates may not be as dramatic unless (or until) test-taking volume rebounds to previous highs. (For instance, in the July 2013 exam, nearly 5000 passed the exam among 8900 test-takers.)

Professor Robert Anderson and I also indicated that we would expect more attorneys who would face discipline. Currently, we estimate those who score a 144 on the bar exam ultimately face a career likelihood of facing discipline at around 9%. (This compares to the overall likelihood of about 5% at 35 years since admission to the bar.) Those with a 139, we project, would likely face a career likelihood of facing discipline at around 12%. The entering cohort would have a somewhat higher likelihood of facing career discipline at some point a 35-year career.

Finally, some law schools will disproportionately benefit, typically those schools at the lower end of the performance—but not whose student bodies perform at the very bottom among law schools. If the cut score is lowered from 144 to 139, schools who had a significant “middle” of the curve, with the bulk of their graduates scoring in a range around 135 to 145, should see the bulk of improvement.

The chart below illustrates a very rough projection of the improvement in performance of each school from the July 2016 bar exam if the score had been lowered to 139. This is very rough because many factors, particularly the distribution of the students at each school, and should be taken only as rough estimates—any figure could easily be a few percentage points higher or lower; and complicating the estimate is that the July 2017 results would, of course, look different. I’m simply trying to fit the projection to last year for some reference.

As you can see, in that middle band of 12 schools, those between Cal Western and Whittier, we would expect to see gains ranging from 14 to 21 points. The 11 schools at the top of the chart would generally see more modest gains of around 8 to 12 points. The 10 schools at the bottom of the chart would also see more modest improvement, typically 6 to 11 points. (The asterisks on the chart are notations for California schools that are not accredited by the American Bar Association.) There are over 50 law schools in California, but not all had sufficient test-takers to be reported in the California data.

What might these factors do to legal education in California? Potentially, quite a bit. I sketch out some possible outcomes—with an emphasis on their potentiality. A change from 144 to 139 is somewhat modest but, in a state as large as California with as many law schools and lawyers, could have significant effects. Here are a few possible things that could occur:

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At least some law schools will admit larger classes. To the extent law schools were reluctant to admit larger classes because of concerns about bar passage rates, those schools will be more inclined to admit larger student bodies. Of course, there are still other reasons that schools may not increase their class sizes, or at least not substantially—they are concerned about their LSAT and UGPA medians for USNWR rankings purposes, they may be worried about finding meaningful legal employment for a larger number of graduates, and so on. But, at least one barrier in the admissions calculus has been partially removed.

Higher-ranked law schools may begin admitting more students that recently historically matriculated to lower-ranked law schools. That is, a new kind of competition may begin. In light of the thought mentioned above, it may not simply be that schools admit larger classes; they may be grabbing applicants who would have attended lower-ranked schools.  This would exert downward pressure on lower-ranked schools in the event that competition for their prospective students increased.

Higher-ranked law schools may see improved racial diversity profiles among incoming classes, potentially at the expense of lower-ranked schools. This is good news for highly-ranked schools and students from racially diverse backgrounds. The lower score will tend to benefit racial minorities, as the data has shown that minorities fail the bar at higher rates. So highly-ranked schools can admit more diverse student bodies with greater confidence of their success. Of course, this will exert downward pressure on lower-ranked schools, who may see their diversity applicant pools dwindle or face pools of applicants with worse predictors than in past years.

Law schools will experience more price sensitivity from prospective law students. That is, the value of the law degree should decline in California, as the volume of attorneys increases and the price for lawyers drops. That should, in turn, make law students more skeptical of the existing value proposition of a law degree. Law schools that have relied on high tuition prices have benefited from the high bar exam cut score, because opportunities for attorneys have been relatively scarce; the drop in cut score will dilute the value of the degree and perhaps require some cost-cutting at law schools. This is not to say that an artificial constriction on the supply of lawyers is a good thing because it props up costs (in my personal view, I think it's quite a bad thing); but, it is to say that lowering the score will have the effect of making cost-sensitivity an increasing possibility.

California-accredited law schools will have opportunities to thrive. Look again at the chart above. San Joaquin (which had 45 first-time test-takers in July 2017) would have a projected bar pass rate of 50%. Lincoln Sacramento (which had 42 first-time test-takers) would have a projected bar pass rate of 47%. These exceed some ABA-accredited schools and start to look quite attractive to prospective law students. That’s particularly true given the tuition at these institutions. The figure below displays the full-time academic year tuition in 2016 for each of these institutions. (For institutions on the credit-hour payment model, I used 28 academic units; for Lincoln Sacramento, a four-year program, I took the total price and divided by three.) I put the schools in rank order of their (projected) bar exam performance. (As a caveat, the actual price at many institutions is much lower because many students receive scholarships that discount tuition; but, for present comparative purposes, I'm using sticker price.)

(It's worth noting in the chart above that an institution like La Verne, which charges much lower tuition than peer institutions, may see a similar benefit.) For those who oppose the regulatory burden of ABA-accreditation and wish that non-accredited institutions have an opportunity to thrive, California (with more than 30 non-ABA-accredited schools) may offer a more meaningful experiment in that effort if the cut score is lowered.

Negative impact in USNWR for elite schools, and positive impact in USNWR for more marginal schools. This category may not be immediately obvious to observers considering bar exam pass rates. That is, some might ask, wouldn't higher bar exam passing rates improve a school's USNWR profile? Not necessarily--particularly not if the overall passing rate increases.

USNWR measures bar pass rate not in absolute terms but in relative terms--the margin between a school's first-time passing rate in a jurisdiction and that jurisdiction's overall pass rates. If School A has a passing rate of 90% and School B 75%, showing some gap that's only part of the story: School A had a 90% rate in a jurisdiction with an overall rate of 60%, which means it actually did quite well; but School B had a 75% rate in a jurisdiction with an overall rate of 80%, which means it actually did poorly. USNWR measures that relative performance. UPDATE: I edited this for some clarity in the hypothetical.

So if School A sees its passing rate increase to 93%, but the jurisdiction's overall passing rate increases to 85%, that's bad for School A in USNWR terms--its ability to outshine others in the jurisdiction has dwindled. In a state as large as California and with such a relatively low first-time overall passing rate, this gives elite schools an opportunity to shine.

Stanford, for instance, boasted a 91% first-time bar passage rate in a jurisdiction with a 56.3% first-time pass rate, a 1.62 ratio. If the bar pass cut score is dropped to 139, the bar projects a first-time pass rate of 64.5%. Even if its pass rate increases to a projected 96%, its ratio drops to 1.49, a 0.12-point drop. The same holds true for institutions like USC (-0.08), UCLA (-0.03), and Berkeley (-0.06). These are just one factor in the USNWR ratings, and these figures are ultimately normalized and compared with other institutions nationally, but it will marginally hurt each of these schools as an institution in the rankings--even though it might benefit a small cohort of graduates each year taking the bar exam.

In contrast, schools that have had below-average bar exam performance would see a significant increase—some of them in my projections moving up 0.2 points in their ratios or even more. If the school is in the unranked tier, it might help get the school into the rankings; if they are ranked lower, it might help them move up the rankings, an added benefit to their graduates passing the bar at higher rates.

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I’ll emphasize what I’ve mentioned repeatedly before but is too often lost when blog posts like this are shared. I have no particularly strong views about what the bar exam cut score ought to be—where it is, a little lower, much lower, or anything else. There are costs and benefits that go along with that, and they are judgments I confess I find myself unable to adequately assess.

But, these are my preliminarily thoughts on things that might happen if the cut score were dropped to 139. Granted, they are contingent on many other things, and it is quite possible that many of them do not happen. But they are a somewhat-evidence-based look at the future. And they show that the change in cut score may disproportionately affect some institutions in ways beyond the short-term bar exam results of cohorts of graduating law students. Time will tell how wrong I am!

Bar exam scores rebound to highest point since 2013

After last year's slight year-over-year improvement in bar exam scores, bar exam scores are up again. The scaled mean of the Multistate Bar Exam rose 1.4 points to 141.7, the highest since 2013, which was 144.3, shortly before a hasty collapse in scores. (The MBE score is a good indicator of bar pass rates to come nationwide, but it's hardly a perfect indicator in every jurisdiction.)


For perspective, California's "cut score" is 144, Virginia 140, Texas 135, New York 133. A bar score of 141.7 is comparable to 2014 (141.5), 2005 (141.6), and 2003 (141.6) in recent years.

This is good news for test-takers and law schools--perhaps the 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. We should see a modest rise in pass rates in most jurisdictions, comparable to where they were three years ago.

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

An odd and flawed last-minute twist in the California bar exam discussion

My colleague Rob Anderson last night blogged about the strange turn in a recent report from the staff at the California State Bar. Hours ahead of today's meeting of the Board of Trustees, which will make a recommendation to the California Supreme Court about the appropriate "cut score" on the bar exam, new information was shared with the Board, which can be found in the report here. (For background on some of my longer thoughts on this debate, see here.)

The report doubles down on its previous claim that there is "no empirical evidence available that indicates California lawyers are more competent than those in other states." (As our draft study of the relationship between attorney discipline and bar scores in California discusses, we concluded that we lacked the ability to compare discipline rates across states because of significant variances in how state bars may handle attorney misconduct.)

But it's now added a new claim: "Nor is there any data that suggests that a higher cut score reduces attorney misconduct." Our paper is one empirical study that expressly undermines this claim. Rob digs into some of the major problems with this assertion and the "study" that comes from it; his post is worth reading. I'd like to add a couple more.

First, the paper makes an illogical jump: "Nor is there any data that suggests a higher cut score reduces attorney misconduct" to "But based on the available data, it appears unlikely that changing the cut score would have any impact on the incidence of attorney misconduct." These are two different claims. One is an absence of evidence; the other is an affirmative finding relating to the evidence. Additionally, the adjective "unlikely" adds a level of certainty--how low is the probability? And on what is this judgment made? Furthermore, the paragraph is self-refuting: "Given the vast differences in the operation of different states' attorney discipline systems, these discipline numbers should be read with caution." Caution indeed--perhaps not read at all! That is, there's no effort to track differences among the states and control for those differences. (This is a reason we couldn't do that in our study.)

Apart from, as Rob points out, other hasty flaws, like misspelling "Deleware" and concluding that California's discipline rate of 2.6 per thousand is "less than a third" of "Deleware"'s 4.7 per thousand, it's worth considering some other problems in this form of analysis.

At a basic level, in order to compare states based on discipline rates, it must be the case that the other factors do not differ dramatically among states. But if the other factors do not differ dramatically among states, and bar pass score also does not matter, then the states should have roughly equal rates, which they don't.

The figure itself demonstrates a number of significant problems.

First, Figure 7 compares cut score with attorney discipline. But it uses a single year's worth of data, 2015. The sample size is absurdly small--it projects, for instance, the State of Vermont's discipline rate based on a sample of 1 (the total attorneys disciplined in 2015). The ABA has such data for several years, but this report doesn't collect that. In contrast, ours uses over 40 years of California discipline data from over 100,000 attorney records.

Second, the figure doesn't control for years of practice, which can affect discipline rates. That is particularly the case if the cohort of licensed attorneys in the state skews younger or older. We find that attorneys are more likely to face discipline later in their careers, and our study accounts for years of practice.

Third, the figure doesn't recognize variances in the quality of test-takers in each state. In July 2016, for instance, California's mean MBE score was a 142.4, but Tennessee's was a 139.8. Many states don't disclose state-specific MBE data. But two states with similar cut scores may have dramatically different abilities among their test-takers, some with disproportionately higher scores. Our study accounts for differences in individual test-taker scores by examining the typical scores of graduates of particular law schools, and of the differences in typical scores between first-time test-takers and repeaters.

Fourth, the figure treats the "cut score" as static in all jurisdictions, when it has changed fairly significantly in some. This is in stark contrast to the long history of California's cut score. California has tethered its 1440 to earlier standards when it sought applicants to score about 70% correct on a test, so even when it has changed scoring systems (as it did more than 30 years ago), it has tried to hold that score as constant as it can. Other states lack that continuity when adopting the MBE or other NCBE-related testing materials, have changed their cut scores, or have altered their scoring methods. Tennessee, for instance, only five years ago adopted scaling essay scores to the MBE, and failure to do so assuredly resulted in inconsistent administration of standards; further, Tennessee once permitted those with a 125 MBE to pass with sufficient "passing" scores on the unscaled essays. South Carolina at one time required a 125 MBE score, and didn't scale its essays. Evaluating state attorney discipline rates from attorneys admitted to the bar over several decades based on a cut score from the July 2016 test cannot adequately measure the cut score.

Let me emphasize a couple of points. I do wish that we had the ability to compare attorney discipline rates across states. I wish we could dive into state-specific data in jurisdictions where they changed the cut score, and evaluate whether discipline rates changed among the cohorts of attorneys under different standards.

But one of the things our study called for was for the State Bar to use its own internally-available data on the performance of its attorneys on the bar exam, and evaluate that when assessing discipline. The State Bar instead chose this crude and flawed process to demonstrate something else.

Finally, let me emphasize one last point, which I continue to raise in this discussion. Our study strongly demonstrates that lower California bar scores correlate with higher attorney discipline rates, and lowering the bar score will result in more attorneys subject to discipline. But, of course, one can still conclude in a cost-benefit analysis that this trade-off is worth it--that the discipline rates are not sufficient for necessary concern, that they often take years to manifest, that access to justice or other real benefits are worth the trade-off, and so on.

But it is disappointing to ignore or use deeply flawed data about the relationship between attorney discipline and the bar exam cut score in this process, particularly when dumped the night before the Trustees meet to evaluate the issue.

A few longer thoughts on the four debates about the bar exam

As the debate rages in California and other places about the utility of the bar exam, it's become fairly clear that a number of separate but interrelated debates have been conflated. There are at least four debates that have been raging, and each requires a different line of thoughts--even if they are all ostensibly about the bar exam.

First, there is the problem of the lack of access to affordable legal representation. Such a lack of access, some argue, should weigh in favor of changing standards for admission to the bar, specifically regarding the bar exam. But I think the bar exam is only a piece of this debate, and perhaps, in light of the problem, a relatively small piece. Solutions such as implementing the Uniform Bar Exam; offering reciprocity for attorneys admitted in other states; reducing the costs to practice law, such as lowering the bar exam or annual licensing fees; finding ways to make law school more affordable; or opening up opportunities for non-attorneys to practice limited law, as states like Washington have done should all be matters of consideration in a deeper and wider inquiry. (Indeed, California's simple decision to reduce the length of the bar exam from three days to two appears to have incentivized prospective attorneys to take the bar exam: July 2017 test-takers are up significantly year-over-year, most of that not attributable to repeat test-takers.)

Second, there is the problem of whether the bar exam adequately evaluates the traits necessary to determine whether prospective attorneys are minimally competent to practice. It might be the case that requiring students to memorize large areas of substantive law and evaluating their performance on a multiple-choice and essay test is not an ideal way for the State Bar to operate. Some have pointed to a recent program in New Hampshire to evaluate prospective attorneys on a portfolio of work developed in law school rather than the bar exam standing alone. Others point to Wisconsin's "diploma privilege," where graduates of the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University are automatically admitted to the bar. An overhaul of admissions to the bar generally, however, is a project that requires a much larger set of considerations. Indeed, it is not clear to me that debates over things like changing the cut score, implementing the UBE, and the like are even really related to this issue. (That said, I do understand those who question the validity of the bar exam to suggest that if it's doing a poor job of separating competent from incompetent attorneys, then it ought to have little weight and, therefore, the cut score should be relatively low to minimize its impact among likely-competent attorneys who may fail.)

Third, there is the problem of why bar exam passing rates have dropped dramatically. This is an issue of causation, one that has not yet been entirely answered. It is not because the test has become harder, but some have pointed to incidents like ExamSoft or the addition of Civil Procedure as factors that may have contributed to the decline. A preliminary inquiry from the California State Bar, examining the decline just in California, identified that a part of the reason for the decline in bar passage scores has been the decline in the quality of the composition of the test-takers. I became convinced that was the bulk of the explanation nationally, too. An additional study in California is underway to examine this effect with more granular school-specific data. If the cause is primarily a decline in test-taker quality and ability, then lowering the cut score would likely change the quality and ability of the pool of available attorneys. But if the cause is attributable to other causes, such as changes in study habits or test-taker expectations, then lowering the cut score may have less of such an impact. (Indeed, it appears that higher-quality students are making their way through law schools now.) Without a thorough attribution of cause, it is difficult to identify what the solution ought to be to this problem.

Fourth, there is the debate over what the cut score ought to be for the bar exam. I confess that I don't know what the "right" cut score is--Wisconsin's 129, Delaware's 145, something in between, or something different altogether. I'm persuaded that pieces of evidence, like California's standard-setting study, may support keeping California's score roughly in place. But it is just one component of many. And, of course, California's high cut score means that test-takers fail at higher rates despite being more capable than most test-takers nationally. Part of that is, I'm not sure I fully appreciate all the competing costs and benefits that come along with changes in the cut score. While my colleague Rob Anderson and I find that lower bar scores are correlated with higher career discipline rates, facts like these can only take one so far in evaluating the "right" cut score. Risk tolerance and cost-benefit analysis have to do the real work.

(I'll pause here to note the most amusing part of critiques of Rob's and my paper. We make a few claims: lower bar scores are correlated with higher career discipline rates; lowering the cut score will increase the number of attorneys subject to higher career discipline rates; the state bar has the data to evaluate with greater precision the magnitude of the effect. No one has yet disputed any of these claims. We don't purport to defend California's cut score, or defend a higher or lower score. Indeed, our paper expressly disclaims such claims! Nevertheless, we've faced sustained criticism for a lot of things our paper doesn't do--which I suppose shouldn't be surprising given the sensitivity of the topic for so many.)

There are some productive discussions on this front. Professor Joan Howarth, for example, has suggested that states consider a uniform cut score. Jurisdictions could aggregate data and resources to develop a standard that they believe best accurately reflects minimum competence--without the idiosyncratic preferences of this state-by-state process. Such an examination is worth serious consideration.

It's worth noting that state bars have done a relatively poor job of evaluating the cut scores. Few evaluate them much at all, as California's lack of scrutiny for decades demonstrates. (That said, the State Bar is now required to undertake an examination of the bar exam's validity at least once every seven years.) States have been adjusting, and sometimes readjusting, the scores with little explanation.

Consider that just in 2017 alone, Connecticut is raising its cut score from 132 to 133, Oregon is lowering it from 142 to 137, Idaho from 140 to 136, and Nevada from 140 to 138. Some states have undergone multiple revisions in a few years. Montana, for instance, raised its cut score from 130 to 135 for fear it was too low, then lowered it to 133 for fear it was too high. Illinois planned on raising its cut score from 132 in 2014 to 136 in 2016, then, after raising the score to 133, delayed implementing the 136 cut score until 2017, and delayed again in 2017 "until further order." Certainly, state bars could benefit from more, and better, research.

Complicating these inquiries are mixed motives of many parties. My own biases and priors are deeply conflicted. At times, I find myself distrustful of any state licensing systems that restrict competition, and wonder whether the bar exam is very effective at all, given the closed-book memory-focused nature of the test. I worry when many of my students who'd make excellent attorneys fail the bar, in California and elsewhere. At other times, I find myself persuaded by studies concerning the validity of the test (given its high correlation to law school grades, which, I think, as a law professor, are often, but not always, good indicators of future success), and by the fact that, if there's going to be a licensing system in place, then it ought to try to be as good as it can be given its flaws and all.

At times, though, I realize these thoughts are often in tension because they are sometimes addressing different debates about the bar exam generally--maybe I'd want a different bar exam, but if we're going to have one it's not doing such a bad job; maybe we want to expand access to attorneys, but the bar exam is hardly the most significant barrier to access; and so on. And maybe even here, my biases and priors color my judgment, and with more information I'd reach a different conclusion.

In all, I don't envy the task of the California Supreme Court, or of other state bar exam authorities, during a turbulent time for legal education in addressing the "right" cut score for the bar exam. The aggressive, often vitriolic, rhetoric from a number of individuals concerning our study in discipline rates is, I'm sure, just a taste of what state bars are experiencing. But I do hope they are able to set aside the lobbying of law deans and the protectionist demands of state bar members to think carefully and critically, with precision, about the issues as they come.

A poor attorney survey from the California State Bar on proposals to change the bar exam cut score

I'm not a member of the California State Bar (although I've been an active member of the Illinois State Bar for nearly 10 years), so I did not receive the survey that the state bar circulate late last week. Northwestern Dean Dan Rodriguez tweeted about it, and after we had an exchange kindly shared the survey with me.

I've defended some of the work the Bar has done, such as its recent standard-setting study, which examined bar test-taker essays to determine "minimum competence." (I mentioned the study is understandably limited in scope and particularly given time. The Bar has shared a couple of critiques of the study here, which are generally favorable but identify some of the weaknesses in the study.) And, of course, one study should not so determine what the cut score ought to be, but it's one point among many studies coming along.

Indeed, the studies, so far, have been done with some care and thoughtfulness despite the compressed time frame. Ron Pi, Chad Buckendahl, and Roger Bolus have long been involved in such projects, and their involvement here has been welcome.

Unfortunately, despite my praise with some caveats about understandable limitations, the State Bar has circulated a poor survey to members of the State Bar about the proposed potential changes to the cut score. Below are screenshots of the email circulated and most of the salient portions of the survey.

It is very hard to understand what this survey can accomplish except to get a general sense of the bar about their feelings about what the cut score ought to be. And it's not terribly helpful in addressing the question about what the cut score ought to be.

For instance, there's little likelihood that attorneys understand what a score of 1440, 1414, or "lower" means. There's also a primed negativity in the question "Lower the cut score further below the recommended option of 1414"--of course, there were two recommended options (hold in place, or lower to 1414), with not just "below" but "further below." Additionally, what do these scores mean to attorneys? The Standard-Setting Study was designed to determine what essays met the reviewing panel's definition of "minimum competence"; how would most lawyers out there know what these numbers mean in terms of defining minimum competence?

The survey, instead, is more likely a barometer about how protectionist members of the State Bar currently are. If lawyers don't want more lawyers competing with them, they'll likely prefer the cut score to remain in place. (A more innocent reason is possible, too, a kind of hazing: "kids these days" need to meet the same standards they needed to meet when getting admitted to the bar.) To the extent the survey is controlling whether to turn the spigot to control the flow of lawyers, to add more or to hold it in place, it represents the worst that a state bar has to offer.

The survey also asks, on a scale of 1 to 10, the "importance" attorneys assign to "statements often considered relevant factors in determining an appropriate bar exam cut score." These answers vary from the generic that most lawyers would find very important, like "maintaining the integrity of the profession," to answers that weigh almost exclusively in favor of lowering the cut score, like "declining bar exam pass rates in California."

One problem, of course, is that these rather generic statements have been tossed about in debates, but how is one supposed to decide which measures are appropriate costs and benefits? Perhaps this survey is one way of testing the profession's interests, but it's not entirely clear why two issues are being conflated: what the cut score ought to be to establish "minimum competence," and the potential tradeoffs at stake in decisions to raise or lower the cut score.

In a draft study with Rob Anderson, we identified that lower bar scores are correlated with higher discipline rates and that lowering the cut score would likely result in higher attorney discipline. But we also identified a lot of potential benefits from raising the score, which have been raised by many--greater access to attorneys, lower costs for legal services for the public, and so on. How should one weigh those costs and benefits? That's the sticky question.

I'm still not sure what the "right" cut score is. But I do feel fairly certain that this survey to California attorneys is not terribly helpful in moving us toward answering that question.

More evidence suggests California's passing bar score should roughly stay in place

Plans to lower California's bar exam score may run up against an impediment: more evidence suggesting that the bar exam score is about where it ought to be.

My colleague Rob Anderson and I recently released a draft study noting that lower bar passage scores are correlated with higher discipline rates, and urging more collection of data before bar scores are lowered.

There are many data points that could, and should, be considered in this effort. The California state bar has been working on some such studies for months. California students are more able than students in other states but fail the bar at higher rates, because California's cut score (144, or in California's scoring 1440, simply 10x) is higher than most other jurisdictions.

Driven by concerns expressed by the deans of California law school, and at the direction of the California Supreme Court, the State Bar began to investigate whether the cut score was appropriate. One such study was a "Standard Setting Study," and its results published last week. It is just one data point, with obvious limitations, but it almost perfectly matches the current cut score in California.

A group of various practitioners looked at a batch of bar exam essays. They graded them. They assessed a score of "not competent," "competent," or "highly competent." They were refined to find that "tipping point," from "not competent" to "competent." (An evaluation of the study notes this is similar to what other states have done in their own standard-setting studies, which have resulted in a variety of changes to bar pass cut scores; and that independent evaluation identified critiques to the study but concluded it was overall sound methodology and valid results.)

The mean recommended passing score from the group was 145.1--more than a full point higher than the actual passing score! The median passing score was 143.9, almost identical to the 144.0 presently used. (The study explains why it believes the median is the better score.)

Using a +/-1 error standard of deviation, the mean score may range from 143.6 to to 148.0; the median score 141.4 to 147.7. All are well short of the 133-136 scores common in many other jurisdictions, including New York's 133. And this study is largely consistent with a study in California 30 years ago when a similar crisis arose over low passing rates, a study I identified in a recent blog post.

So, what to do with this piece of evidence? The researchers offered two recommendations for public comment and consideration: keep the score where it is; or reduce the passing score needed to 141.4 for the July 2017 exam alone. (Note: what a jackpot it would be to the bar test-takers this July if they received a one-time reprieve!) The recommendations nicely note many of the cost-benefit issues policymakers ought to consider--and includes some reasons why California has policy preferences that may weigh in favor of a lower score (at least temporarily). The interim proposal to reduce to a 141.4, one standard error below the recommended median value of 143.9, takes into account these policy considerations. Such a change may be modest, but it could result in a few hundred more bar test-takers passing the bar on the first attempt in California.

Alas, the reaction to a study like this has been predictable. Hastings Dean David Faigman--who called our study "irresponsible," accused the State Bar of "unconscionable conduct" for the July 2016 bar exam--waited until the results dropped to critique the study with another quotable adjective soundbite, labeling the study "basically useless." (A couple of other critiques are non-responsive to the study itself.)

Of course, one piece of data--like the Standard Setting Study--should not dictate the future of the bar exam. Nor should the study of my colleague Rob Anderson and me. Nor should the standard setting study 30 years ago. But they all do point toward some skepticism that the bar exam cut score it dramatically or outlandishly too high. It might be, as the cost-benefit and policy analysis in the recommendations to the state bar suggest, that some errors ought to be tolerated with a slight lowering of the score. Or it might be that the score should remain in place.

Whatever it is, more evidence continues to point toward keeping it roughly in the current place, and more studies in the future may offer new perspectives on the proper cut score.

Does the bar exam adequately test prospective lawyers' minimum competence?

The critiques of the bar exam have grown louder over the last few years on the heels of declining bar pass rates. But the most popular critiques have changed somewhat. It used to be that external factors--such as the ExamSoft debacle--were a target. Then came charges that the bar exam was harder than usual. But the most recent charges are actually quite a longstanding critique of the bar exam--it simply isn't a good measure of prospective lawyers' "minimum competence."

The bar has attempted to adjust in the last fifty years. Many states now have a "performance test," a component designed to simulate what lawyers do--test-takers are given some law and some facts and asked to address the problem with a legal task. That said, performance tests moderately correlate with other elements of the bar exam and perhaps are not performing the function some hoped they would serve.

Regardless, critiques of the bar exam are longstanding, and some of the most popular critiques look something like this: why did a state, like California, pick this score as a passing score for "minimum competence"? And why is the bar exam any good at testing the kinds of things that lawyers actually do? The bar exam is a three-day (in California, beginning this July, two-day), closed book test with multiple choice and timed essay questions that in no way resembles the real world of law practice. Why should we trust this test?

It's a fair point, and it's one best met with a question: what ought the bar test? And, perhaps a more subtle question: what if it turns out that the answer to what the bar ought to test actually aligns quite closely with the results from the existing bar exam?

A study in 1980 in California is one of the most impressive I've seen on this subject. And while it's a little old, it's the kind of thing that ought to be replicated before state bars go about making dramatic changes to their exams or scoring methods. I'll narrate what happened there. (For details, consider two reports on the study and the testimony presented to California lawmakers asking the exact same questions in 1984, after the particularly poor performance of applicants to the state bar on the July 1983 bar exam--a historically low score essentially matched in the July 2016 administration.)

After the July 1980 bar exam in California, the National Conference of Bar Examiners teamed up with the California Committee of Bar Examiners to run a study. They selected 485 applicants to the bar who had taken the July 1980 exam. Each of these applicants took an additional two-day test in August 1980.

The two-day test required participants to "function as counsel for the plaintiff in a simulated case" on one day, and "counsel for the defendant in a different simulated case" the other day. Actors played clients and witnesses. The participants were given oral and written tasks--client interviews, discovery plans, briefs, memoranda, opening statements, cross-examination, and the like. They were then evaluated among a number of dimensions and scored.

In the end, the scores were correlated to the applicants' bar exam scores. The relationship between the scores and the general bar exam scores were fairly strong--"about as strong as the underlying relationship between the Essay and MBE section of the [General Bar Exam]." "In short," the study concluded, the study and the bar exam "appear to be measuring similar but not identical abilities."

Additionally, a panel of 25 lawyers spent more than two days with extended in-depth evaluation of 18 of these participants. The panelists were clinical professors, law professors, attorneys, judges, and others with a variety of experience. The panelists were asked to evaluate these 18 participants' performance among the various dimensions along a scale of "very unsatisfactory" (i.e., fail) to "borderline" to "very satisfactory" (i.e., pass). The panel's judgments about the pass/fail line was consistent with the line where it was drawn on the California bar exam (with the caveat that this was a sample of just 18 applicants).

It might be that there are different things we ought to be testing, or that this experiment has its own limitations (again, I encourage you to read it if you're interested in the details). But before anything is done about the bar exam, it might be worth spending some time thinking about how we can evaluate what we think ought to be evaluated--and recognize that there are decades of studies addressing very similar things that we may ignore to our peril.