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The group of law school graduates taking the Pennsylvania bar exam for the first time this February was the smallest since 2003, continuing a national decline in the number of students sitting for and passing the bar. The 74.1 percent passage rate was the highest for the February exam since 2012′s rate of 74.5 percent, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners.

Just 263 students took the exam this February, compared with 318 in 2015 and 344 in 2014. The February exam traditionally has a much smaller applicant pool than the July exam.

Last July also set a record low for the number of applicants in the 13 years for which information is publicly available from the board, as 1,555 individuals took the exam for the first time—a steep decline from the average July complement of 1,809 applicants over the preceding 12 years.

The 626 total applicants this February, including those who had previously taken the exam, was the smallest group since 2010, when 607 total applicants took the exam.

Among area law schools, Widener University Commonwealth Law School performed the best on the February exam, with all 10 of its first-time applicants succeeding.

Widener Commonwealth Dean Christian Johnson said the mark was a validation of the faculty and students’ hard work.

“In the legal press and talking with the [American Bar Association] and other places, enormous emphasis is being placed on taking law students that don’t have any hope of passing the bar and having a successful career, and it’s a great validation to see our students outperforming other law schools and doing really well,” Johnson said.

Villanova University School of Law ranked second with a 90 percent success rate, followed by Penn State University Dickinson School of Law at 80 percent and Widener University Delaware Law School at 79.4 percent.

Rutgers University School of Law—Camden and University of Pennsylvania Law School each had a 75 percent passage rate among first-time test takers. Temple University’s Beasley School of Law had a 73.3 percent passage rate; Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law had a 70 percent passage rate; and University of Pittsburgh School of Law had a 53.9 percent passage rate.

Duquesne University School of Law’s six first-time applicants had a 50 percent ­success rate, the lowest among area schools.

More graduates of Widener Delaware took the Pennsylvania exam than any other school—63 total and 34 for the first time. It was trailed closely by Temple’s 56 applicants, which included 15 first-time test takers.

Among law schools beyond the Pennsylvania region, Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s 26 total applicants were far and away the most to take the February exam. Charlotte School of Law had nine graduates take the Pennsylvania exam, as did American University Washington College of Law.

Last July, the passage rate for first-time takers of the exam was at its lowest since 2003, the earliest year for which data was available from the board.

Of the 1,555 applicants who took the Pennsylvania bar exam for the first time last July, almost 78.3 percent passed. That was the lowest figure since 2003, when 77.8 percent of the first-time applicants passed the test. In the intervening years, the passage rates were always above 80 percent, reaching as high as about 89 percent in 2008.

Of the 626 total individuals taking the exam in February, including repeat applicants, 56.4 percent passed. The total success rate was 52.6 percent last February and 57.4 percent for the February 2014 exam.

The overall success rates among area law schools ranged from 69.6 percent at Temple to 37.5 percent at Rutgers.

Other area law schools’ overall passage rates were:

• Drexel—53.1 percent.

• Duquesne—46.5 percent.

• Penn State—38.1 percent.

• Penn—66.7 percent.

• Pitt—47.6 percent.

• Villanova—56.3 percent.

• Widener Commonwealth—67.7 percent.

• Widener Delaware—60.3 percent.

Ben Seal can be contacted at 215-557-2368 or bseal@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BSealTLI.