Jessica Cino Jessica Gabel Cino (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Georgia State University College of Law is taking a high-tech approach to the troubling national phenomenon of declining bar pass rates.

The law school is developing a program that uses data analytics to identify students most at risk for failing the bar exam. To do that, it’s compiling a comprehensive database that tracks pass rates for its recent graduates, starting with the class of 2012, against their grades, classes taken and a multitude of other factors, such as time spent on bar preparation.

With that predictive modeling, the researchers hopes to pinpoint and suggest interventions for students who are statistically at risk after their first year of study.

‘Scared Straight’

Jessica Gabel Cino, GSU Law’s associate dean for academic affairs, is leading the program. She said one early finding is that material covered in Constitutional Law II, an elective covering due process and individual rights, is “one of the weakest points” for students taking the bar exam. Questions about wills, trusts and estates are also often on the exam—but that course is elective.

“You can’t learn that in six weeks,” Cino said, so she will “strongly encourage” a student who appears at risk to take those courses.

Cino said waiting until a student has graduated and is preparing for the bar exam is too late.

“I want to be able to tell you after the first year of law school if you’re at risk for failing the bar and that you need to do something—and do something now,” she said.

GSU Law has already established a mandatory daylong “boot camp” in January for third years, Cino said, where they take a diagnostic exam. “They see how bad the bar exam is, so they’re ‘scared straight.’”

But Cino wants to start pinpointing possible trouble spots for students and ways the law school can help as early as possible.

“In law schools, it’s not only our job to make sure they’re doing well in the silo of law school. We’ve really got to help address the bar pass issue,” Cino said.

“It’s not enough for me to tell them to study harder. I need to give them a realistic picture of why study harder—and give them the resources,” she said.

GSU Law has also hired Kim D’Haene for a new position as director of academic success to assist in developing programming and individual plans for students. D’Haene is a lecturer for Kaplan Bar Review and was assistant dean for academic achievement at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.

Pass Rates in Decline

When Cino took on the academic affairs position from Roy Sobelson in 2016, GSU Law had started to see the same concerning drops in its bar pass rates as other law schools.

The bar pass rate for the GSU Law graduating classes of 2012 to 2014 was high, ranging from 95 percent to 92 percent, respectively, for first-time takers of the July exam, according to data from the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions. It dropped to 87.5 percent for the 2015 class, then 82.6 percent for the 2016 class—rebounding slightly to 84.5 percent for the 2017 class.

Even so, GSU Law has the second-highest pass rate of Georgia’s five law schools, behind the University of Georgia School of Law.

Bar pass rates for Georgia law schools started to drop in 2013, from an 89.8 percent average pass rate in July 2012 for their first-time test-takers to 75.3 percent for the same group for the July 2016 exam, according to Georgia Office of Bar Admissions statistics.

That’s a decline of 14.5 percentage points in that four-year period.

In a positive development, the pass rate for the July 2017 exam rebounded to 79.4 percent for first-time takers from Georgia law schools.

Deploying Data

Meanwhile, GSU researchers had been using analytics tracking to improve graduation rates for its undergraduate class, Cino said, by “identifying the pressure points for students not graduating.”

What the researchers found was that college algebra was a big obstacle, so GSU devoted resources to math tutoring, she said.

Another big obstacle was money. As little as $500 could make a notable difference in undergraduates completing their degree, the researchers found, so GSU offers microloans now.

As a result, the university increased its four-year graduation rate by 9 percentage points from 2011 to 2016.

“Why not build on this amazing work?” Cino said. “We’re hoping to do the same with our project and find out what are the pressure points for law students.”

The only real consensus on the problem is that it’s “a multitude of factors,” she added.

Cino and a team of student researchers started compiling a database of grades, coursework and bar pass rates at the beginning of the year for the roughly 1,750 students enrolled from 2009 to 2017. That data sample includes earlier classes with high pass rates, which they can compare to the classes for which pass rates declined.

“You need to look at students in years with good bar results and bad bar results so you can make informed decisions,” Cino said.

Cino and GSU professor Andrea Curcio secured an AccessLex Institute/AIR grant to assess whether LSAT scores predict success in law school and on the bar exam, which is helping to fund data collection and inputting.

The law school is also conducting qualitative research. Cino and her team are crafting a questionnaire for all 1,750 of those students and recent alumni that will ask how they studied for the bar, if they are single or married, and what financial pressures they were under.

All those factors and more, Cino said, “play into students’ ability to achieve success in law school.”

One factor, she added, could be that students these days don’t necessarily take a lot of law classes that “put them in a closed-book, time-test environment,” akin to the bar exam, as schools and students focus more on practical lawyering skills.

For that reason, the survey will ask students how much time they are spending on bar prep. Two popular prep courses, Kaplan Bar Review and Barbri, use online software that tracks students’ homework completion, which they can opt to share with the law school. “That’s really helpful,” Cino said.

Cino said she and her team hope to have data collection and entry completed by the end of May so they can start running predictive models, with help from GSU data scientists.