July 2015 bar exam results again show declining pass rates almost everywhere: outliers, or a sign of more carnage?

This post has been updated.

Many speculated that the July 2014 bar passage results were anomalously low on account of some failure in the exam, either because of software glitches or because of some yet-undescribed problem with the National Conference of Bar Examiners and its scoring of the Multistate Bar Exam. Last October, I was among the first to identify the decline in scores last year, and my initial instinct caused me to consider that a problem may have occurred in the bar exam itself. Contrary evidence, however, led me to change my mind, and the final scores showed rather significant declines in all jurisdictions, in all likelihood, I concluded, based on a decline in law school graduate quality.*

It's quite early for the July 2015 bar exam results, but they are trickling in. In most of these jurisdictions, only the overall pass rate is available, even thought it's usually better to separate first-time test-takers from repeaters (and, even better, first-time test-takers who graduated from ABA-accredited law schools). In other jurisdictions, I use the best available data, which is sometimes second-hand (and I link all sources when available). Worse, many of these jurisdictions only list pass and fail identities, so I have to do the math myself, which increases the likelihood for error.

But looking at the NCBE statistics from last year, we can see another overall decline in scores almost across the board. And even in places where there was an uptick in pass rates--which, perhaps, suggest that things are not as dire as they appeared last year, where--they remain low compared to recent history. Assuming last year's exam was not an anomaly but the beginning of a trend, which I eventually came to agree was the best explanation given the evidence, these results are consistent with that assumption--with no ExamSoft fiasco to blame. The problem of lower standards at many law schools that began about four years ago appears to be coinciding with the decline of bar pass rates, in many jurisdictions to recent-past lows, and several jurisdictions experiencing double-digit drops in the pass rate.

As with last year, of course, we're looking at only a handful of early-reporting jurisdictions. The final scaled MBE score, when disclosed, should reveal a great deal of information, so projections from the trends of a few states should be treated with appropriate caution (and speculation).

UPDATE: The MBE scores have been released, and they are the lowest since 1988. You can see details here.

Change in overall bar pass rate, July 2014 over July 2015

Iowa, +5 points (July 2014: 81%; July 2015: 86%)

Kansas, -3 points (July 2014: 79%; July 2015: 76%)

New Mexico, -12 points (July 2014: 84%; July 2015: 72%)

North Carolina, -4 points** (July 2014: 71%; July 2015: 67%)

North Dakota, +6 points (July 2014: 63%; July 2015: 69%)

Oklahoma, -11 points (July 2014: 79%; July 2015: 68%)

Washington, -1 point (July 2014: 77%; July 2015: 76%)

West Virginia, -5 points (July 2014: 74%; July 2015: 69%)

Wisconsin, -10 points*** (July 2014: 75%; July 2015: 65%)

**denotes first-time test-takers, not overall rate. UPDATE: I relied on erroneous data from 2014; I've since updated the data.

***source via comments

It's worth noting that North Carolina's bar appears to have an unusually volatile pass rate. The first-time pass rate in July 2013 was 71%; that skyrocketed to 85% last year; and that plummeted back to 67% this year. UPDATE: This data was in error, see above.

Jurisdictions like North Dakota are incredibly small--just 62 people took the bar, which likely explains some of the great volatility in scores, as each test-taker represents almost 2 points in the overall pass rate. July 2013 had a 76% overall pass rate, which plunged to 63% last year and bobbed back up to 69% this year. But more importantly, their first-time pass rate increased 15 points, from 64% to 79%, which resembles the 81% first-time pass rate from July 2013.

I've also added a little historical perspective for these bar exams. I've added charts beside the table showing the overall July pass rate (in North Carolina's case, the first-time pass rate) since 2010. In many jurisdictions, this is a six-year low, and it might be the lowest in quite some time. In most jurisdictions, it's the lowest or second-lowest in the six-year window of data. (The charts are slightly deceptive because the axes all end near the bottom of the pass rate range and doesn't go all the way down to 0%; perhaps not obviously to all, most graduates still pass the bar in these jurisdictions, but the charts reflect the relative changes within a small band in recent years.)

*(As an important caveat, I recognize that there are many measures of "student quality" or "law school graduate quality," and that the bar exam is but one measure of that. But, assuming, which may be even too big an assumption for many, that the bar exam presents, very roughly, a proxy for those who have the minimum capability to practice law, and the pass rates continue to decline, then we can, very roughly, say that there has been a "decline" in "law school graduate quality," at least as evaluated by this one metric. Perhaps there are other metrics, or perhaps there are better metrics, but this is how I use the term here.)

Additional updates to this post will occasionally occur here.

Alabama, -5 points (July 2014: 65%; July 2015: 60%)

Arizona, -11 points (July 2014: 68%; July 2015: 57%)

California, -2 points (July 2014: 49%; July 2015: 47%)

Colorado, -2 points (July 2014: 74%; July 2015: 72%)

Connecticut: -2 points (July 2014: 77%; July 2015: 75%)

Florida, +3 points (July 2014: 66%; July 2015: 69%)

Georgia, -6 points (July 2014: 80%; July 2015: 74%)

Idaho, +4 points (July 2014: 65%; July 2015: 69%)

Indiana, unchanged (July 2014: 72%; July 2015: 72%)

Louisiana, -8 points (July 2014: 70%; July 2015: 62%)

Mississippi, -27 points (July 2014: 78%; July 2015: 51%)

Missouri, -1 point (July 2014: 85%; July 2015: 84%)

Montana, -2 points (July 2014: 64%; July 2015: 62%)

Nevada, +2 points (July 2014: 58%; July 2015: 60%)

New York, -4 points (July 2014: 65%; July 2015: 61%)

Oregon, -5 points (July 2014: 65%; July 2015: 60%)

Pennsylvania, -5 points (July 2014: 76%; July 2015: 71%)

Tennessee, -2 points (July 2014: 66%; July 2015: 64%)

Vermont, -14 points (July 2014: 66%; July 2015: 52%)