SACRAMENTO—The success rate of would-be lawyers taking the California bar exam continues to slide, with just 34.5 percent of those who sat for the February test earning passing marks, according to figures released late Friday.
The pass rate is the lowest for a spring sitting in eight years and the third worst over the last 30 years.
“Regrettably the pass rate shows a continuing decline, a trend happening nationally,” State Bar executive director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker said in a prepared statement. “The State Bar is committed to a better understanding of the problem to determine how to address it.”
The pass rate for the February exam is traditionally lower than the rate for the July sitting. The fact that more than 2,900 test-takers failed the spring exam, however, is likely to reignite a debate over the test’s validity.
After the July 2016 exam pass rate slumped to a 32-year-low of 43 percent, frustrated law school deans took their complaints to state lawmakers and to the Supreme Court. Those who took the California test actually scored higher than the national average on the multistate bar exam portion, the deans noted. But California requires the second highest score in the nation—144—to pass.
“Graduates of our law schools who would have passed the bar with similar performance in virtually any other state … are failing it in our great state, simply because of where California has decided to draw the line between passing and failing,” the deans of 20 American Bar Association-approved law school said in a letter to the Supreme Court in February.
The deans asked the court to temporarily lower the passing score—also known as a “cut” score—to between 133 and 136 while the state bar scrutinizes the test. Democrats on the Assembly Judiciary Committee agreed, telling Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye the bar had failed to identify any “close evidence-based connection” between the high cut score and protecting the public from bad lawyers.
The Supreme Court in March declined to reduce the passing score, saying it wanted “a fully developed analysis with supporting evidence” before acting. The court instead directed the bar to study the exam and slumping test scores and to submit a report with recommendations by Dec. 1.
Parker said the first phase of a study examining the test score starts May 15.
Graduates of California-based, ABA-approved law schools had the highest pass rates on the February exam, with 45 percent of first-time test-takers and 46 percent of “repeaters” passing. Out-of-state ABA school graduates had pass rates of 39 percent and 34 percent. And graduates of California-accredited schools had pass rates of 18 percent and 15 percent.
Pass rates for individual schools have not been released yet.