Call it a tale of two bar exams.
Performance of law graduates taking the attorney licensing test in February has hit the lowest point in more than a decade, while scores for those taking the exam during the more popular July session have been on the upswing.
According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the average score on February’s Multistate Bar Exam—the 200 multiple-choice question portion of the test used by all jurisdictions—fell 1.3 points from the previous year, to 132.8. That’s the lowest average in more than 10 years, and marks the fourth straight year that the February average declined.
By contrast, the average MBE score from the July exam ticked up slightly in 2016 and went up 1.4 points in 2017.
The diverging performance of July and February bar takers largely boils down to repeat test takers, according to Judith Gundersen, president of the national conference. Fully 70 percent of those who sat for the bar in February had already taken the test at least once, and repeat takers on average perform worse than those in their first sitting.
Indeed, the average MBE score for first-time takers in February was 135, compared to 132 for repeat test takers, the national conference reported.
While the percentage of repeat takers did not change from the February 2017 exam, they didn’t score as highly as the repeaters a year earlier, Gundersen said. Their average score fell 1.7 points from 2017. First-time February takers scored about the same as last year, she added.
“That percentage [of repeaters] from last year did not rise, but some of those repeaters’ performance dropped from last year, affecting the mean,” she said.
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It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from the February bar exam scores because the cohort of those tested is relatively small, according to Pepperdine University School of Law professor Derek Muller, who tracks bar exam trends. Just 21,111 took the bar this February, compared with 46,627 in July 2017.
But law schools may have played a role in the February declines by positioning some lower-performing students to take that exam, instead of the July one, he said.
“I think some schools have been advising their more at-risk students to skip the July bar and study more for the February bar so they have a higher chance of passing the first time; if—big if!—that’s the case, we would expect lower scores in this cohort,” Muller said.
It’s likely that pass rates will be down for the most recent exam based on the lower MBE average, Gundersen said, though jurisdictions are still in the process of grading exams and releasing scores. (Jurisdictions set their own cut scores, so the MBE average doesn’t offer a full picture of national results. Several jurisdictions, including Nevada and Oregon, have recently adopted lower cut scores, which should help boost their pass rates.)
February bar exam results are beginning to trickle in, however. Florida’s February pass rate held steady at 58 percent. North Carolina’s pass rate was 33 percent. In Mississippi, 36 percent of February bar takers passed.