California bar exam takers are far more able than others nationwide but fail at much higher rates

The California July 2015 bar results were recently released, reflecting a modest drop in scores, slightly less than other jurisdictions this year. The overall pass rate dropped from 48.6% in July 2014 to 46.6%. The first-time pass rate dropped from 61% to 60%. And among California ABA-accredited schools, the first time rate also dropped a point to 68%.

California is one of the rare jurisdictions that also discloses its statewide mean scaled MBE score. The NCBE discloses the nationwide mean scaled MBE score, which has dropped fairly significantly over the last couple of years. But California has consistently outperformed the nationwide cohort, sometimes rather dramatically.

California's mean scaled MBE score was 142.4 this July, 2.5 points higher than the nationwide average of 139.9. In fact, it's even 0.9 points higher than last year's nationwide average.

The performance of California bar takers is even more impressive given that over 8000 people typically take the July bar among the 50,000 or so nationwide MBE bar exam test-takers. Despite representing over 15% of MBE test-takers, California significantly outperforms the national average.

Pennsylvania (142.2) and Tennessee (139.8) posted lower mean scaled MBE scores. But their pass rates are dramatically higher than California's--71.2% and 64.5%, compared to California's 46.6% in July 2015.

Connecticut and Georgia also disclose the mean scaled MBE scores on a school-by-school basis. I plotted those schools with the California, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee overall results to illustrate how dramatic an outlier California is.

California's high cut score means that many test-takers who would pass the bar in another jurisdiction fail the California bar. Indeed, if the California cut score were closer to Georgia, Pennsylvania, or Tennessee, then the overall pass rate would be around 72%. (It might be even higher in Connecticut.) Indeed, about half of those who failed the California bar in July 2015 would have passed in another jurisdiction.

What the "right" cut score should be is something else. And how the essays bear upon the MBE score. And whether these few states are sufficiently representative. But it's a somewhat useful illustration of some data to note that despite the very low pass rates in California, it's not for lack of relative quality of test-takers.