The collapse of bar passage rates in California

My colleague Paul Caron has helpfully displayed the data of the performance of California law schools in the July 2016 California bar exam. It's worth noting that the results aren't simply bad for many law schools; they represent a complete collapse of scores in the last three years.

The chart here shows the performance of first-time California bar test-takers who graduated from California's 22 ABA-accredited law schools in the July 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 administrations of the exam. The blue line in the middle is the statewide average among California's ABA-accredited law schools. (The overall passage rate among all ABA-accredited law schools is usually a point or two lower than this average.)

The top performers are mostly unchanged from their position a few years ago. The middle performers decline at roughly the rate of the statewide average. But the bottom performers show dramatic declines: from 65% to 22%, and from 75% to 36%, to identify two of the most dramatic declines.

It's true that changes to the applicant pool have dramatically impacted law schools, as I identified three years ago and as continues to hold true. There have been fewer applicants for law schools; those applicants are often less qualified applicants--those with lower LSAT scores and UGPAs than previous classes; and schools are not shrinking their class sizes quickly enough to respond to the decline in quality. For some of the more at-risk schools, they face significant attrition each year as their very best students are transferring to higher-ranked institutions, further diluting the quality of the graduating classes. (I've also occasionally read critiques that law schools are not "doing enough to prepare" students to take the bar exam, but I highly doubt law schools have dramatically changed their pedagogy over the last few years to cause such a decline.)

And the decline in bar pass rates in 2014 was the first in a longer stage of declining scores, as I explained back then. And it's not even clear that pass rates have reached bottom.

I noted earlier this year that the new mandate from the ABA that 75% of graduates of law schools must pass the bar exam within two years of graduation will uniquely impact California--despite bar test-takers being far more able in California, they fail at much higher rates. Whether bar pass rates will improve for some of these schools in the future, or whether the state bar intervenes to ease its scorning practices, remains a matter to be seen.

Note: I did not start my Y-axis at 0% to avoid unnecessary white space at the bottom of the graph, and it is designed to show relative performance rather than absolute performance.