It’s turning out to be a brutal year for the bar exam.
The average score on the Multistate Bar Exam hit a recent low in February, and now the average for the July 2018 test has dropped more than two points to the lowest figure since 1984.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners on Sept. 14 announced that the average score on the MBE in July fell 2.2 points to 139.5. That’s just slightly higher than 1984’s MBE average of 139.21. That decline dashes hopes that bar exam pass rates were on the road to recovering after plummeting in recent years. Jurisdictions set their own cut scores and calculate results, but the decline in the average MBE score suggests that pass rates will fall, or at least not improve, this go-around.
“Performance on the written portion of the bar exam tracks MBE performance,” said National Conference of Bar Examiners president Judith Gundersen. “Pass rates will be lower in most jurisdictions. Already some jurisdictions have completed grading and have released their results. There have been some upticks, but generally, lower performance and bar passage is expected.”
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners announced Monday that 67 percent of July takers passed, down from 71 percent a year ago. North Carolina has also released results last week, with 72.5 percent of first-time takers passing. That’s nearly identical to the July 2017 first-time pass rate of 72.2. (The North Carolina Board of Bar Examiners does not unveil overall pass rates to the public, but the University of North Carolina School of Law unveiled that figure last week in a release touting its nearly 87 percent pass rate.)
In Indiana, 62 percent of July takers passed, down from 66 percent the previous year. Eighty-six percent of first-time takers in Iowa passed, down from 88 percent. Missouri’s pass rate was just under 76 percent, down from nearly 85 percent a year ago. Vermont offers an early bright spot, with the pass rate rising from 62 percent to 70 percent this year. More states are expected to release results this month and into October.
The Multistate Bar Exam comprises 200 multiple-choice questions and is used by every jurisdiction in the country. The July MBE average hit a recent low of 139.9 in 2015, though the latest results are slightly worse.
Falling bar pass rates across the country have prompted concern in recent years, with some critics blaming the bar exam itself for the declining pass rates. The National Conference, however, has pointed to the lower academic credentials of students who entered law school after 2011, when interest in legal education waned and many schools reached deeper into their applicant pools.
The average score on the MBE actually rose more than a point on the July 2017 exam, and that increase fueled hope that pass rates were starting to return to their pre-2014 days. But the latest figures indicate otherwise.
“Like everyone else, we were hoping that the rebounding of scores in the 2016 and 2017 July results would continue, but they are what would be expected given the number of applicants and LSAT 25th percentile means of the 2015 entering class,” Gundersen said.
Improved bar pass rates could be on the way, though perhaps not immediately. The most recent applicant pool was the strongest in recent years, with more high scorers on the Law School Admission Test. Those new students should perform better on the bar exam than previous classes, though they won’t take the test until 2021.
The 2.2-point drop in the July 2018 average MBE score comes on the heels of a 10-year low for the February 2018 exam. That average MBE score fell 1.3 points, to 132.8. Gundersen attributed that drop to a higher proportion of repeat test takers, who fail the bar at higher rates than first-time takers. The National Conference is studying whether the rise of the Uniform Bar Exam is leading to lower pass rates on the February test, on the theory that the UBE has reduced the number of successful bar takers who need to retake the exam in February in order to practice in a new jurisdiction.
But the uniform bar, now adopted by 35 jurisdictions, doesn’t explain the lower MBE average for the July 2018 exam. July is the larger of the two bar administrations and has a larger percentage of first-time takers.