Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, executive director of the State Bar of California.
Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, executive director of the State Bar of California. (Courtesy photo)

SACRAMENTO—The head of California’s state bar told lawmakers on Tuesday “there’s no good answer” for why the state requires the second-highest bar exam passing score in the nation.

“For many years it was seen as a point of pride that it was such a rigorous exam but perhaps it’s time now to look again,” Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker said at an Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing. “Is it doing what we want? Is it a fair exam? Is the pass score effectively set where it is? When you ask why is [the multistate bar exam cut score] set at 144, I’m embarrassed to tell you there’s no good answer.”

California’s high pass-score has been under attack since November when the bar revealed that just 43 percent of those taking the July exam earned a passing score—a 32-year low. California test-takers scored higher on the multistate bar exam portion of the exam than the national average, but their pass rate lagged behind peers in other states where the required score is lower.

Twenty of 21 California law schools approved by the American Bar Association signed a letter this month asking the state Supreme Court to temporarily lower the scoring requirement while the bar studies the cause of the slide. The court has not responded publicly. But the issue has caught the attention of legislators, who devoted three hours Tuesday to studying the complexities of law school admissions and testing—and hearing from frustrated law deans.

Dips in bar exam pass rates are cyclical. Another slump started in 2002 and lasted for about four years. But the latest numbers were historically low, and they are coupled with a drop in the number of college graduates applying to law schools and an increasing gap in the pass rates in California and other states.

“The effect of this low bar passage rate is to put our students and our law schools at a competitive disadvantage,” said Stephen Ferruolo, dean of the University of San Diego Law School. “The low bar passage rate is also I believe adversely impacting the quality of the California bar and the preparedness of California lawyers.”

Ferruolo said that because the exam covers up to 14 subject areas, students are less motivated to take courses in specialized areas of the law. Some students in his school’s incoming class will be required to take a four-credit course on passing the bar exam, he said, leaving them less time to take other practical coursework.

“Is that useful for practice?” Ferruolo said. “It’s completely useless.”

Karen Goodman, chair of the bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners, said the agency has to make the most of an exam that may provide the only opportunity in a lawyer’s career to test his or her skills.

“While we’re in an era of specialization, look around, there aren’t that many lawyers in the state that are state bar certified specialists,” Goodman said. “This is our only exam, so we need to make sure it is rigorous, we need to make sure it covers a wide variety of subjects.”

Two bar committees meet Wednesday to discuss recent bar exam pass rates and the cut score itself. A bar spokeswoman said there will also be a “series of thorough studies” of the exam this year.

Law school deans, however, are still pressing for the passing score to be lowered while the studies are taking place.

“My experience with the state bar is studying means two or three years and doing cut score analysis and task forces … that are often the equivalent of a punt,” said Dean Barbieri, dean of John F. Kennedy University College of Law in Pleasant Hill. “I don’t think the schools of California have the ability to withstand two to three more years of declining enrollment and issues associated with accreditation.”