ExamSoft: By the Numbers

March 26th, 2015 / By

Earlier this week I explained why the ExamSoft fiasco could have lowered bar passage rates in most states, including some states that did not use the software. But did it happen that way? Only ExamSoft and the National Conference of Bar Examiners have the data that will tell us for sure. But here’s a strong piece of supporting evidence:

Among states that did not experience the ExamSoft crisis, the average bar passage rate for first-time takers from ABA-accredited law schools fell from 81% in July 2013 to 78% in July 2014. That’s a drop of 3 percentage points.

Among the states that were exposed to the ExamSoft problems, the average bar passage rate for the same group fell from 83% in July 2013 to 78% in July 2014. That’s a 5 point drop, two percentage points more than the drop in the “unaffected” states.

Derek Muller did the important work of distinguishing these two groups of states. Like him, I count a state as an “ExamSoft” one if it used that software company and its exam takers wrote their essays on July 29 (the day of the upload crisis). There are 40 states in that group. The unaffected states are the other 10 plus the District of Columbia; these jurisdictions either did not contract with ExamSoft or their examinees wrote essays on a different day.

The comparison between these two groups is powerful. What, other than the ExamSoft debacle could account for the difference between the two? A 2-point difference is not one that occurs by chance in a population this size. I checked and the probability of this happening by chance (that is, by separating the states randomly into two groups of this size) is so small that it registered as 0.00 on my probability calculator.

It’s also hard to imagine another factor that would explain the difference. What do Arizona, DC, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have in common other than that their test takers were not directly affected by ExamSoft’s malfunction? Large states and small states; Eastern states and Western states; red states and blue states.

Of course, as I explained in my previous post, examinees in 10 of those 11 jurisdictions ultimately suffered from the glitch; that effect came through the equating and scaling process. The only jurisdiction that escaped completely was Louisiana, which used neither ExamSoft nor the MBE. That state, by the way, enjoyed a large increase in its bar passage rate between July 2013 and July 2014.

This is scary on at least four levels:

1. The ExamSoft breakdown affected performance sufficiently that states using the software suffered an average drop of 2 percentage points in bar passage.

2. The equating and scaling process amplified the drop in raw scores. These processes dropped pass rates as much as three more percentage points across the nation. In states where raw scores were affected, pass rates fell an average of 5 percentage points. In other states, the pass rate fell an average of 3 percentage points. (I say “as much as” here because it is possible that other factors account for some of this drop; my comparison can’t control for that possibility. It seems clear, however, that equating and scaling amplified the raw-score drop and accounted for some–perhaps all–of this drop.)

3. Hundreds of test takers–probably more than 1,500 nationwide–failed the bar exam when they should have passed.

4. ExamSoft and NCBE have been completely unresponsive to this problem, despite the fact that these data have been available to them.

One final note: the comparisons in this post are a conservative test of the ExamSoft hypothesis, because I created a simple dichotomy between states exposed directly to the upload failure and those with no direct exposure. It is quite likely that states in the first group differed in the extent to which their examinees suffered. In some states, most test takers may have successfully uploaded their essays on the first try; in others, a large percentage of examinees may have struggled for hours. Those differences could account for variations within the “ExamSoft” states.

ExamSoft and NCBE could make those more nuanced distinctions. From the available data, however, there seems little doubt that the ExamSoft wreck seriously affected results of the July 2014 bar exam.

* I am grateful to Amy Otto, a former student who is wise in the way of statistics and who helped me think through these analyses.


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