ExamSoft Update

April 21st, 2015 / By

In a series of posts (here, here, and here) I’ve explained why I believe that ExamSoft’s massive computer glitch lowered performance on the July 2014 Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). I’ve also explained how NCBE’s equating and scaling process amplified the damage to produce a 5-point drop in the national bar passage rate.

We now have a final piece of evidence suggesting that something untoward happened on the July 2014 bar exam: The February 2015 MBE did not produce the same type of score drop. This February’s MBE was harder than any version of the test given over the last four decades; it covered seven subjects instead of six. Confronted with that challenge, the February scores declined somewhat from the previous year’s mark. The mean scaled score on the February 2015 MBE was 136.2, 1.8 points lower than the February 2014 mean scaled score of 138.0.

The contested July 2014 MBE, however, produced a drop of 2.8 points compared to the July 2013 test. That drop was 35.7% larger than the February drop. The July 2014 shift was also larger than any other year-to-year change (positive or negative) recorded during the last ten years. (I treat the February and July exams as separate categories, as NCBE and others do.)

The shift in February 2015 scores, on the other hand, is similar in magnitude to five other changes that occurred during the last decade. Scores dropped, but not nearly as much as in July–and that’s despite taking a harder version of the MBE. Why did the July 2014 examinees perform so poorly?

It can’t be a change in the quality of test takers, as NCBE’s president, Erica Moeser, has suggested in a series of communications to law deans and the profession. The February 2015 examinees started law school at about the same time as the July 2014 ones. As others have shown, law student credentials (as measured by LSAT scores) declined only modestly for students who entered law school in 2011.

We’re left with the conclusion that something very unusual happened in July 2014, and it’s not hard to find that unusual event: a software problem that occupied test-takers’ time, aggravated their stress, and interfered with their sleep.

On its own, my comparison of score drops does not show that the ExamSoft crisis caused the fall in July 2014 test performance. The other evidence I have already discussed is more persuasive. I offer this supplemental analysis for two reasons.

First, I want to forestall arguments that February’s performance proves that the July test-takers must have been less qualified than previous examinees. February’s mean scaled score did drop, compared to the previous February, but the drop was considerably less than the sharp July decline. The latter drop remains the largest score change during the last ten years. It clearly is an outlier that requires more explanation. (And this, of course, is without considering the increased difficulty of the February exam.)

Second, when combined with other evidence about the ExamSoft debacle, this comparison adds to the concerns. Why did scores fall so precipitously in July 2014? The answer seems to be ExamSoft, and we owe that answer to test-takers who failed the July 2014 bar exam.

One final note: Although I remain very concerned about both the handling of the ExamSoft problem and the equating of the new MBE to the old one, I am equally concerned about law schools that admit students who will struggle to pass a fairly administered bar exam. NCBE, state bar examiners, and law schools together stand as gatekeepers to the profession and we all owe a duty of fairness to those who seek to join the profession. More about that soon.


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