Despite improvement in MBE scores, bar exam rates appear to be falling yet again

I blogged earlier about the slight improvement in MBE scores, which, I thought, might lead to an increase in the overall bar pass rates. But I was in a wait-and-see mode, because, while MBE scores typically track bar pass rates, we needed to see results from jurisdictions to see if that would be the case this year.

It appears, however, that even though MBE scores rose, bar exam pass rates are declining again.

I continue to track overall pass rates (rather than first-time or first-time ABA rates) because that's often the only data many jurisdictions disclosed--but first-time pass rates are often much better. These are most of the jurisdictions that have publicly disclosed overall pass rates.

Bar pass rates have improved slightly in a couple of jurisdictions--Kansas rose from 76% to about 79%, and West Virginia from 69% to about 71%. But there are some declines--and some fairly significant ones--elsewhere. Missouri's fell from 84% to 79%--it was 91% in 2012. Indiana's dropped 13 points, from 74% to 61%. Iowa's dropped 15 points, from 86% to 71%--it was 90% in 2012.

Assuming all things are equal, an increase in the mean MBE scores would have meant an increase in the bar pass rates. But why are seeing declines in many many jurisdictions?

My initial theory--unsupported by any evidence!--would be that the best students were sufficiently worried about the bar exam and studied more than ever. That would mean that the scores of people already inclined to pass the bar exam improved--and that wouldn't have any impact on the pass rates. It would shift up the mean score of the MBE without affecting the overall pass rates. And, if the quality of students law schools have been graduating has continued to decline, then we might expect to see overall pass rates decline.

It's also possible that these jurisdictions are outliers and we'll see improvement in pass rates in places like New York and California. (The small decline in the pass rate in Florida, however, is not a good sign on this front.)

In short, there was some excitement and enthusiasm about the uptick in the MBE scores. But if that uptick isn't translating into improved bar pass rates, law schools need to be seriously considering responses to continued declines in the months ahead.

(It's worth noting that I chose a non-zero y-axis to demonstrate the relative changes in performance; overall, a majority of test-takers continue to pass the bar in each jurisdiction.)