After cratering to all-time record lows last year, scores on the February administration of the Multistate Bar Exam have bounced back. It’s good news, but modest—the rise returns to scores from February 2017, which were at that time the lowest in history. Scores have now bounced back to match the second-lowest total in history… which is slightly better.
To be fair (which is not to say I’ve been unfair!), part of this overall score is likely driven by the Uniform Bar Exam. It used to be that there were more test-takers who’d passed a previous bar exam and would have to take another test in another jurisdiction. Those who’d already passed were likely to score quite well on a second attempt on a new bar. But the National Conference of Bar Examiners has indicated that the rise of the UBE has dropped the number of people taking a second bar, which in turns drops the number of high scorers, which in turn drops the MBE scores. So the drop in the MBE scores itself isn’t entirely a cause of alarm. It’s a reflection that the UBE is reducing the number of bar test-takers by some small figure each year.
We now know the mean scaled national February MBE score was 134.0, up 1.8 points from last year's 132.8. We would expect bar exam passing rates to rise in most jurisdictions. Just as repeaters caused most of the drop last time, they are causing most of the rise this time. Repeaters’ scores simply appear to be more volatile as a cohort of test takers.
A couple of visualizations are below, long-term and short-term trends.
For perspective, California's "cut score" is 144, Virginia's 140, Texas's 135, and New York's 133. The trend is more pronounced when looking at a more recent window of scores.
The first major drop in bar exam scores was revealed to law schools in late fall 2014. That means the 2014-2015 applicant cycle, to the extent schools took heed of the warning, was a time for them to improve the quality of their incoming classes, leading to some expected improvement for the class graduating in May of 2018. But bar pass rates were historically low in July 2018. It’s not clear that law schools have properly adapted even after five years.
Until then, we wait and see for the July 2019 exam. For more, see Karen Sloan over at NLJ.