Here we go again: February 2015 bar pass rates down over last year

For February 2016 information, please click here.

This post has been updated with a visual representation of the decline in the mean MBE score.

In pursuit of a seemingly endless quest to determine what caused the July 2014 decline in bar pass rates, there's a simple solution: wait and see. Subsequent administrations of the test would reveal whether the July 2014 test was a one-time aberration or reflected an actual decline in student quality.

As the February 2015 bar exam results start to trickle in, the answer, as I've been inclined to suggest of late, is increasingly likely to be the latter.

It should be noted that some state bars, like Illinois, have begun to pull up the ladder on young Millennials increase the score required to pass. That will likely independently increase the failure rate in many jurisdictions in the years to come.

Additionally, the February bar exam is something different in kind. It usually includes fewer first-time test-takers, which means that the overall pass rates are usually lower. (People who fail the bar once are much more likely than others to fail it again.) There are often with much smaller pools of test-takers, making a single jurisdiction's pass rate subject to apparent significant fluctuations.

At this stage, too, like last year, most jurisdictions only disclose the overall pass rate, lumping together first-time test-takers and repeaters, ABA and non-ABA law school graduates, which is the least meaningful metric for evaluating performance across administrations.

Then again, if the theory is that the July 2014 was a one-time aberration, we might see an increase in highly qualified repeaters who are much more likely to pass the test if they "ought" to have passed the first time around--meaning, perhaps, that, all things being equal, we may see pass rates increase in the February 2015 administration over the February 2014 test, if the July 2014 test was attributable to non-test-taker-related factors.

The preliminary data, however, reflects a decline in pass rates largely across the board (with no ExamSoft debacle to complicate our analysis).

Granted, not only are we dealing with the caveats above, but these jurisdictions are (mostly) smaller than the typical jurisdiction, which makes potential distortions even more likely. Further, the declines are (somewhat) smaller (and, perhaps, closer to what one would expect with the decline of predictors) than the ones initially observed last July. And until a jurisdiction discloses the national mean scaled MBE score, we don't have the cleanest comparison. But given that early signs last year pointed toward the ultimate trend--despite most of the same caveats--these might serve as a warning.

Overall bar pass rates, February 2015 v. February 2014

Florida, -8 points* (February 2014: 72%; February 2015: 64%)

Kansas, -4 points (February 2014: 86%; February 2015: 82%)

Kentucky, -7 points (February 2014: 77%; February 2015: 70%)

Illinois, about -5 points (February 2014: 75%**)

Iowa, -14 points (February 2014: 86%; February 2015: 72%)

Missouri, -3 points (February 2014: 81%; February 2015: 78%)

New Mexico, -1 point (February 2014: 81%; February 2015: 80%)

New York, -4 points (February 2014: 47%; February 2015: 43%)

North Carolina, -13 points (February 2014: 56%; February 2015: 43%)

North Dakota, -7 points (February 2014: 62%; February 2015: 55%)

Ohio, unchanged (February 2014: 64%; February 2015: 64%)

Oklahoma, -3 points (February 2014: 70%; February 2015: 67%)

Oregon, -2 points (February 2014: 66%; February 2015: 64%)

Pennsylvania, -4 points (February 2014: 57%; February 2015: 53%)

Tennessee, -10 points (February 2014: 64%; February 2015: 54%)

Vermont, -20 points (February 2014: 68%; February 2015: 48%)

Virginia, unchanged (February 2014: 59%; February 2015: 59%)

Washington, -5 points (February 2014: 71%; February 2015: 66%)

West Virginia, -2 points (February 2014: 70%; February 2015: 68%)

We have small additional data points reflecting that perhaps it's not quite so bad. North Dakota disclosed its first-time pass rate, which increased 7 points--of course, only 31 were first-time takers last year, which, again, reflects some of the caveats listed above. (UPDATE: Pennsylvania's first-time pass rate was 69%, a 3-point drop. Oregon's first-time pass rate was 69%, an 11-point drop.)

I hope to occasionally update this post in the weeks to come, and we'll see if these jurisdictions are an aberration or a sign of things to come.

*Florida's statistics include only first-time exam takers.

**While Illinois has not disclosed its pass rate, its percentile equivalent chart suggests a drop of about 5 points. A scaled score of 264 is required to pass. A scaled score of 270 was the equivalent of the 40th percentile in February 2014; it's the equivalent of the 46th percentile in 2015. A scaled score of 260 was the equivalent of the 27th percentile in February 2014; it's the equivalent of the 31st percentile in 2015. (Although I confess I don't understand how Illinois disclosed an overall 75% pass rate when it conceded that 27% of test-takers scored at least 4 points below the passing score in February 2014, unless they have extremely generous re-scoring and re-evaluation.)

UPDATE: The Pennsylvania bar results reveal that the national scaled MBE score for February 2015 was a 136.2. That's a 1.8-point drop from the February 2014, and, while not the steepest decline or the lowest score in the last decade, is certainly close to it.