Why are bar exam scores improving?

The news that the mean scaled MBE score has risen for the second year in a row and is now the highest since 2013 is good news for law schools and law students. I've been tweeting the results of the comparative overall pass rates in some jurisdictions as they roll in. It shows that, as expected with an increase in the MBE, passing rates are up in most jurisdictions. That's helped by jurisdictions that have lowered the cut score: Oregon, for instance, reduced its passing score from 142 to 137, and its passing rate rose from 58% in July 2016 to 79% in July 2017. (The low point of MBE scores came in July 2015).

But, why? In 2014, I noted that it looked like bar pass rates would have a bleak (at least short-term) future. In 2016, scores slightly improved; and here in 2017, they've improved quite a bit (though well behind where they were in 2013 and the preceding decade of relatively high scores).

Schools that saw their declines in bar pass rates in September to November of 2014 would not have been able to take action on the admissions front until they admitted students who began in August 2015. (Indeed, some might have hoped it was a one-time blip and might not have reacted even then.) But we could look at a couple of things to see if their practices changed.

First, it turns out that the bottom end of the incoming classes in August 2014 had worse predictors than August 2012--but the July 2017 test-takers scored much better than the July 2015 test-takers. A whopping 146 law schools saw a decline in their 25th percentile LSAT incoming classes (i.e., the cohort most likely to fail the bar--relative, of course, to each school's LSAT profile and each jurisdiction's cut score) in that two-year period. 29 held steady in their 25th percentile, and just 14 saw an improvement.

If anything, then, we should expect bar pass scores to be much more this past July! But we also have another factor: academic dismissals. Note that the incoming class from August 2014 may have had worse credentials, but they would have completed their first year in May 2015, shortly after some schools would have been aware of the significant drop in the bar pass rates.

Professor Jerry Organ tracked attrition and noted an uptick in academic dismissals among that August 2014 incoming class by 2015--and before they took the July 2017 bar. Overall first-year attrition was up slightly, from 6.25% for the Class of 2015 to 7.04% for the Class of 2017. But attrition rose the most at schools with the lowest LSAT profiles. Among schools with a median LSAT profile below 150, attrition rose from 12.1% to 17.1% in that two-year stretch, while declining slightly at all other institutions.

Surely that can offset some of the worsening LSAT profiles. But it can hardly explain all of it. I wonder if institutions have found better strategies of intervening with at-risk students, or providing more robust bar exam support for at-risk students. Perhaps in the last couple of years, students have been sufficiently scared of failing the bar to study harder or earlier (we know that over time, a bar exam test-taker's score will improve). These are matters that institutions may have the data to examine (or may be in the process of collecting). Regardless, it remains good, albeit still slightly mysterious news--and those in legal education hope that it is the beginning of a continued trend of good news.