Editor’s note: This article appeared in The Recorder newspaper November 24, 1999. It remains timely because pass rates have continued to decline, while law schools and the State Bar claim they haven’t changed a thing.

Explaining the Inexplicable.

The Bar pass rates are down,
and no one seems
to know why
- or care.

On my first day of law school, I was shocked when the torts professor mocked the idea that the law had anything to do with justice. Now I realize that's as much of a cliche among lawyers as saying that the bar exam has nothing to do with law school or with success in the practice of law.

But that is small comfort to the 3,769 applicants who just found out they failed the July 1999 exam. If law school doesn't prepare them for it - and if the skills it tests bear no relation to the ones needed to practice - at what, exactly, have they failed?


Failing bar applicants are left scratching their heads all alone, because most ABA-accredited California law schools aren't asking themselves what and how the bar tests and what they can do to help their students pass.

The pass rate has been the lowest in 10 years - for
four Bar exams in a row.

They should be, because the pass rate on each of the last four exams has been the lowest in 10 years.

Overall pass rates for the last two February exams came in at about 40 percent. And just over half the test-takers passed the last two July exams.

This year's pass rate of 51.2 percent is the lowest in 12 years.


Pass rates have fallen between 12 and 20 percent at nearly half the California law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. (See box.) Although we don't yet have statistics by school for both exams in 1999, given the pass rate, this discouraging trend is assuredly continuing.

The Bar sees
no trend.

What trend? says State Bar Director of Admissions Jerome Braun. According to Braun, there's been no change in the difficulty of the exam or the way it is graded. He says that pass rate reflects the preparedness and capability of people taking the exam.

If the bar exam hasn't been graded any differently in the past four administrations, then there must be a huge difference in the population of applicants taking the exam. I asked the schools listed here what they were doing differently. Had they changed their admission standards? Grading policies? Faculty? You will not be shocked to learn that the schools said nothing much has changed.

Braun and the State Bar say the mix of students taking the exam is different each time, implying that the exam itself is a rock-sold model of consistency and standardization.

"Each group who takes the examination is unique - unique skills, unique qualifications and unique preparation," Braun told The Recorder. "So I would expect some fluctuation."

But if the outcome changes - not once but repeatedly, and not a little but dramatically - it's hard to believe all the players contributing to that outcome when they say nothing's changed.

If the pass rate's changed,
something's changed.

Or, as Yogi Berra might say, if something's changed, something's changed.

Could it be that the Bar is raising the bar on exam grading?

To answer that question, a little background on exam grading is in order.

There are two stages in the grading of an exam. First, essays and performance tests (PTs) are given a numerical score on a hundred point scale.

Scaling isn't doing its job.

The numerical score is then adjusted, by a process known as "scaling" so that - theoretically - the score reflects the same level of achievement as it did in past years, with a scaled score of 1440 required to pass. That's what's supposed to ensure consistency. But it clearly isn't doing the job.

Braun, who has directed the admissions office for 10 years, refuses to even attempt an explanation of scaling, saying the process is like the Rule Against Perpetuities to him. He says the process is "arcane" and likens it to "rocket science," but says scaling brings consistency to the grading of the written exam. "We are satisfied that the pass rate represents the same level of achievement for July of 1989 to July of 1999 to July 2003," he says.

I asked Steven Klein, a psychometrician and consultant to the Bar on the examination, to explain the scaling process. This is not a complete explanation but focuses on the part of scaling intended to stabilize the pass rate.

The multiple-choice portion of the exam, or MBE, is controlled as to its difficulty by repeating 60 questions on each test. After comparing success on the 60 repeated questions with success on the remainder of the exam, the MBE examiners adjust the score up or down. This adjustment is done to maintain the same level of difficulty for each MBE exam.

Law School  1997 Overall Pass Rate 1998 Overall Pass Rate Change in Passing Percent

California Western
School of Law
 69.6 49.3 20.3
Thomas Jefferson
School of Law 
 45.5 26.3 19.2
Loyola Law School  75 60 15
Whittier Law School  61.7 45 16.7

Pepperdine University
School of Law
 79 65 14
Univ. of San Diego
School of Law
 74.1 61.2 12.9
McGeorge School
of Law
 71 53.5 17.5
Univ. of San Francisco
School of Law
 82.6 67.2 15.4
Univ. of Santa Clara
School of Law
 73 59.7 13.3

Source: General Bar Examination statistics, State Bar of California

Because the level of difficulty of the MBE is presumably constant, the written exam score - essays and PTs - is matched to the MBE score.

Let's say 3,000 California applicants get MBE scores at the 70th percentile or above. Then the 3,000 California applicants with the highest written scores will be matched, highest to highest, and second highest to second highest, with the MBE. Their written score is given the MBE score with which it matches.

It is theoretically possible, Klein says, for a person who got all 60s on her essays to pass the California Bar, if her written score was among the top third, say, of all written scores and thus matched to a passing MBE score. So, no one can look a Bar applicant in the eye and say, "This is the grade you are aiming for." The only guidance possible is "1440," which is a result of several complex mathematical manipulations.

"What you need
to pass is
a 'passing' score."

It is the equivalent of saying, "What you need to pass is a passing score."

How's that for giving guidance to applicants?

To prove that the pass rate has been stable over the past 20 years, Klein suggest looking only at first-time takers from ABA schools, which naturally means looking only at July bar exam results. Then Klein says we must throw out results from two of those exams - July 1984 and July 1994 - which be says were flukes. Even then, the pass rate has varied among first-time ABA applicants by as much as 8 percent.

In sum, the raw scores of the bar are so arcanely manipulated that it isn't possible to tell an applicant what grade he or she needs to pass. That's done in the name of stabilizing the pass rate.

Proof that it does stabilize the pass rate can be seen only by looking at the results achieved by one group of applicants and only for July exams, with exception for high and low results that can't be explained.

ABA schools
see no reason
to change.

Most ABA-accredited schools remain convinced that the recent low pass rates aren't their fault, and see no reason to change their approach to preparing students for the exam. Even schools that admit the drop in the pass rate deserves scrutiny have not done much about it. Instructors remain resistant to interference with their teaching or testing. And ABA schools refuse to teach to the bar.

Klein, who has consulted on California's bar exam for 25 years, says the way the exam is graded has not changed. He says the failing of most failing students is their lack of ability to apply facts to law.

I believe that. I know the California Bar Exam is not a trick test whose tricks can be learned from a commercial purveyor. The exam tests knowledge, yes, but it also tests legal reasoning. What exactly do academics mean when they say they don't teach to the bar? Could they mean to say law schools don't consider inculcating legal reasoning to be their responsibility?

Law schools
blame the State Bar.

There is a disconnect between the law schools and the State Bar that disserves Bar applicants. The law schools don't understand, really, how the bar is graded. And they don't seem to care. And in blaming the Bar for the drop in pass rates, they deny their own responsibility to clearly teach and test legal reasoning.

But the Bar bears some of the blame, too, for hiding the ball. Putting aside the scaling mystique, the Bar does not disclose how an essay gets a 75. Granted, it invites law school professors and deans to one of two sessions where graders calibrate the grades they give. But it closes the first calibration session, where the reasoning of the graders is exposed.

to the Bar"

It is there that the law professors would discover that "teaching to the bar" is exactly what law schools are supposed to be doing.

Vivian Dempsey is a faculty member at San Francisco Law School, and has been a grader of the California Bar Exam. She has taught The Writing Edge Bar Review Course since 1985.

The Recorder * Wednesday, November 24, 1999

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