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NCBE Memo: Low Bar Pass Rate Due to 'Less Able' Test Takers

Most states have already disclosed their July bar exam results (sorry, California, you've got to wait a little longer), and the results are pretty grim. July 2014 had the lowest passage rates in recent memory, and the MBE looks to be the culprit.

Why? Well, it could be NCBE's fault for failing to normalize the scores. It could be due to an increase in the number of repeat test-takers, who generally score worse with each re-taking. Or, it could be the thing that is obvious but no one wants to say: The test-takers this time just weren't very smart.

But You Don't Have to Take My Word for It

Before you get out your torches and pitchforks, that's not us who's saying that -- it's the president of the NCBE. In a memo last month to law school deans nationwide, Erica Moeser confirmed that the NCBE had calculated the MBE results correctly and posited, "All [indicators] point to the fact that the group that sat in July 2014 was less able than the group that sat in July 2013."

"Less able" seems to be a very polite way of saying, "They scored lower because they got more questions wrong, and they got more questions wrong because they weren't as smart."

Is There Something to This?

Law schools graduated more students in 2013 than they ever had before. Observers seemed to think this was because 2009 was the height of the Great Recession, leading to a spike in law school applications in 2010. Students coming out of undergraduate schools or contemplating a job change would have tried to defer going into the job market by going to law school, essentially waiting out the recession for three years.

And of course, the result is a glut of lawyers on the market, meaning lower employment outcomes and fewer students going to law school. Law schools are faced with precipitously declining enrollment, which means declining revenue from tuition and the need to cut costs. Thus, in order to keep enrollment numbers up, law schools have been forced to lower the bar (that's a pun, I think) when it comes to admissions criteria.

Whatever the Answer, Someone Needs to Be Less 'Opaque'

Makes sense, maybe -- but that doesn't mean it's not controversial. Brooklyn Law School's dean responded to Moeser's memo, calling it "disparaging" and requesting a complete, transparent examination of NCBE's grading system. "It's not the students, it's the test," he concluded.

And you'd think that, because LSAT scores roughly correlate to bar exam passage, you'd have seen a significant dip in those, but LSAT scores for the class of 2014 -- as represented by the October 2010 administration -- weren't much different from other years' scores. Then again, the October 2010 LSAT had a "generous" curve, meaning more students could get more wrong answers than in previous years, but receive the same score.

Whatever the reason for these woeful bar exam results, the NBCE has some 'splainin' to do.

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