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Bar Exam Scores Drop to Their Lowest Point in Decades

Unprepared students can't handle a harder test

American law graduates are increasingly getting a taste of failure before they start their careers. Performance on the bar exam has continued to slip, early results show.

The average score on the multiple-choice portion of the July test fell 1.6 points from the previous year, reaching its lowest level since 1988, according to data provided to Bloomberg by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The mean score on this summer's exam was 139.9, down from 141.5 in July 2014.

"It was not unexpected," says Erica Moeser, the president of the NCBE, which creates the multiple choice part of the test. "We are in a period where we can expect to see some decline, until the market for going to law school improves."

Law schools have been admitting students with lower qualifications who "may encounter difficulty" when taking the bar, Moeser says. 

About a dozen states have published their pass rates, and the numbers are even worse than last year, when graduates performed historically badly. Pass rates for students who took the test in July were down in most states that have reported results.

“The decline in student quality continues to affect the results,” says Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law. As fewer people apply to law schools, the programs have started filling their campuses with students who aren’t as qualified as they used to be. That strategy produced a crisis in 2014, when scores on the multiple-choice portion of the test registered their largest year-over-year drop in four decades. 

The poor showing a year ago prompted a debate between law school deans and the organization that creates the exam. Deans said the test was unfair and that a software glitch that made it harder to submit test results may have hurt some students. The NCBE's Moeser pointed her finger right back, charging that schools were letting in students who didn't have a good shot at passing the test.

This year’s results are among the most important in the exam's history, because they will offer a clearer sense of whether last year’s failure rate was an anomaly or the start of a very bad run. So far, the numbers are pointing in the wrong direction for the nation’s law schools.

In Mississippi, the pass rate on the July exam plunged 27 percentage points, from 71 percent in July 2014 to 51 percent this year. In Oklahoma and New Mexico, pass rates slumped 11 percentage points and 12 percentage points, respectively. Most states haven’t revealed how their graduates fared yet, so it’s too early to feel overwhelmingly confident about what the smattering of numbers means for the state of legal education.

Still, Muller, the Pepperdine law professor, says the early results show that graduates will keep getting hammered by the test as long as law schools keep lowering their admissions standards. “There isn’t a lot that schools can do. You can only train students so far and so much, a lot depends on ability,” he says.

One reason students might be failing is that the test may be getting trickier. This is the first July exam that asked students questions about a seventh area of law, civil procedure, which adds to a long list of legal concepts that come up in multiple-choice questions.

“We have a harder exam so people will get more questions wrong, and that will bring the pass rates down,” says Deborah Merritt, a law professor at Ohio State University. Asking lesser students to take a more punishing test will leave the country with fewer lawyers and more underused juris doctors, Merritt says. “We are making it harder, in an objective sense, to be admitted to the bar.”     

Moeser, the president of the nonprofit that creates the test, says students did not do markedly worse on civil procedure questions than on any other topic the test probed.