The Bar Exam Debate Continues…

The following was originally posted on the Law School Academic Support blog:

Is the Bar Too Low to Get Into Law School?” is the headline in today’s New York Times “Room for Debate” section. It posed the question: Why are so many law students failing the bar exam? This is a complex issue and as the different responses make clear, there is no simple answer.

The debate started more than a year ago. The July 2014 bar exam was one of the most exciting (and not in a good way) and controversial bar exams in recent history. It is widely known as Barmageddon or Barghazi due to a nationwide debacle on the first day of the exam. The first day is the written portion; test takers pay a fee ($100-$125) to use laptops and then upload responses through an outside company. Most jurisdictions use ExamSoft. Last year ExamSoft experienced a system-wide failure and test takers across the country were not able to upload responses. ExamSoft eventually fixed the problem but not until thousands and thousands of test takers had stayed up most of the night trying to submit their responses. To say it was stressful is an understatement.

By the time day two started, many test takers still did not know the fate of their responses- were they uploaded? would the jurisdiction accept them after the deadline? Day two of the bar exam is the Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE)- the multiple choice portion of the test that every state (except for LA) uses. It is created, scored and scaled by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and although it is only one part of the overall score, jurisdictions use it to scale the other portions of the exam. In other words, the MBE score is a big deal. The rest of the bar exam was uneventful. Until jurisdictions started posting results. Almost every jurisdiction reported historically low bar pass rates. This is when the finger-pointing began: Many law schools blamed the MBE, saying the test was flawed. The NCBE fired back, claiming takers were “less able” than in past years. Not many seemed to see any connection between Barghazi and bar scores.

Fast forward to July 2015. The NCBE added a seventh subject to the MBE but the exam itself is uneventful. No system failures. No Barghazi, part II. Then results started trickling out. Pass rates are lower than last year and so is the national median for the MBE. You have to go back more than twenty years to see a median score this low.

So, why are so many students failing the bar exam? Is it because law students are “less able?” Is it the addition of more material? Are law schools not adequately preparing students? Is the bar exam itself a flawed test?  There is definitely “Room for Debate”.