California Bar Exam: Will the Cut Score Be Lowered?

It was five months ago when the State Bar of California decided to finally study the California Bar Exam. And its notoriously high cut score was not forgotten about. If you are wondering why they came to this conclusion, well, here is the reason behind it: they witnessed complete carnage on the July 2016 and February 2017 bar exams and their concerning passage rates. If you didn’t know by now, then you should spare some attention to this fact: California’s required passing score of 144 is higher than that of 48 other states. Only Delaware’s cut score is a bit higher.

The fight over California Bar Exam cut score

Three months ago the California Supreme Court barred the Committee of Bar Examiners of its authority to decide the minimum passing score of the state’s exam. Moreover, many thought that the court had the intent to set a lower, more reasonable cut score. And it was only last month that the State Bar Board of Trustees provided the Supreme Court with a set of recommendations for the cut score. The recommendations ranged from doing absolutely nothing to lowering it to 139.

After some thoughtful consideration, the California Supreme Court finally spoke. The final decision was that the passing of the California bar exam will remain 144. Why, you ask? The justices of the state Supreme Court were not persuaded by pleas to lower the passing score. California’s tail spinning pass rates are consistent with the national 9% average declines in overall pass rates observed from 2007 to 2016.

Suggestions of California Supreme Court

The California Supreme Court’s justices rejected the premise of changing the state’s cut score. But they did not leave the matter at that. They suggested the following course of action:

The court … encourages the State Bar and all California law schools to work cooperatively together and with others in examining (1) whether student metrics, law school curricula and teaching techniques, and other factors might account for the recent decline in bar exam pass rates; (2) how such data might inform efforts to improve academic instruction for the benefit of law students preparing for licensure and practice; and (3) whether and to what extent changes implemented for the first time during administration of the July 2017 exam — that is, adoption of a two-day exam and equal weighting of the written and multiple choice portions of the exam — might bear on possible adjustment of the pass score.

Examination of these matters could shed light on whether potential improvements in law school admission, education, and graduation standards and in State Bar testing for licensure, combined with effective regulatory oversight of legal education, could raise bar exam pass rates and thereby reduce financial hardship for exam takers, and boost the availability of competent and effective attorneys across all demographics and for all Californians.

Bottom line

So the California Supreme Court is unwilling to lower the cut score. Instead, it wants to solve the problem from its roots. Moreover, there are obvious improvements for law school admissions. And those improvements could prevent graduates from failing the bar exam. Furthermore, it looks like the state Supreme Court justice is turning this around on the law school deans. The reason is that they were the ones requesting to lower the cut score. Did it ever cross their minds to instead raise their standards?

Now let’s look at the matter from the test-takers side. It would have been nice if the Supreme Court hadn’t left them waiting for their scores with a false hope. But let’s dig deeper. It would actually have been nicer if law schools had not provided the test-takers with the false hope. And that false hope was thinking they would pass the bar exam in the first place.

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