On the Bar Exam, My Graduates Are Your Graduates

May 12th, 2015 / By

It’s no secret that the qualifications of law students have declined since 2010. As applications fell, schools started dipping further into their applicant pools. LSAT scores offer one measure of this trend. Jerry Organ has summarized changes in those scores for the entering classes of 2010 through 2014. Based on Organ’s data, average LSAT scores for accredited law schools fell:

* 2.3 points at the 75th percentile
* 2.7 points at the median
* 3.4 points at the 25th percentile

Among other problems, this trend raises significant concerns about bar passage rates. Indeed, the President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) blamed the July 2014 drop in MBE scores on the fact that the Class of 2014 (which entered law school in 2011) was “less able” than earlier classes. I have suggested that the ExamSoft debacle contributed substantially to the score decline, but here I focus on the future. What will the drop in student quality mean for the bar exam?

Falling Bar Passage Rates

Most observers agree that bar passage rates are likely to fall over the coming years. Indeed, they may have already started that decline with the July 2014 and February 2015 exam administrations. I believe that the ExamSoft crisis and MBE content changes account for much of those slumps, but there is little doubt that bar passage rates will remain depressed and continue to fall.

A substantial part of the decline will stem from examinees with very low LSAT scores. Prior studies suggest that students with low scores (especially those with scores below 145) are at high risk of failing the bar. As the number of low-LSAT students increases at law schools, the number (and percentage) of bar failures probably will mount as well.

The impact, however, will not be limited just to those students. As I explained in a previous post, NCBE’s process of equating and scaling the MBE can drag down scores for all examinees when the group as a whole performs poorly. This occurs because the lower overall performance prompts NCBE to “scale down” MBE scores for all test-takers. Think of this as a kind of “reverse halo” effect, although it’s one that depends on mathematical formulas rather than subjective impressions.

State bar examiners, unfortunately, amplify the reverse-halo effect by the way in which they scale essay and MPT answers to MBE scores. I explain this process in a previous post. In brief, the MBE performance of each state’s examinees sets the curve for scoring other portions of the bar exam within that state. If Ohio’s 2015 examinees perform less well on the MBE than the 2013 group did, then the 2015 examinees will get lower essay and MPT scores as well.

The law schools that have admitted high-risk students, in sum, are not the only schools that will suffer lower bar passage rates. The processes of equating and scaling will depress scores for other examinees in the pool. The reductions may be small, but they will be enough to shift examinees near the passing score from one side to another. Test-takers who might have passed the bar in 2013 will not pass in 2015. In addition to taking a harder exam (i.e. a 7-subject MBE), these unfortunate examinees will suffer from the reverse-halo effect describe above.

On the bar exam, the performance of my graduates affects outcomes for your graduates. If my graduates perform less well than in previous years, fewer of your graduates will pass: my graduates are your graduates in this sense. The growing number of low-LSAT students attending Thomas Cooley and other schools will also affect the fate of our graduates. On the bar exam, Cooley’s graduates are our graduates.

Won’t NCBE Fix This?

NCBE should address this problem, but they have shown no signs of doing so. The equating/scaling process used by NCBE assumes that test-takers retain roughly the same proficiency from year to year. That assumption undergirds the equating process. Psychometricians recognize that, as abilities shift, equating becomes less reliable.* The recent decline in LSAT scores suggests that the proficiency of bar examinees will change markedly over the next few years. Under those circumstances, NCBE should not attempt to equate and scale raw scores; doing so risks the type of reverse-halo effect I have described.

The problem is particularly acute with the bar exam because scaling occurs at several points in the process. As proficiency declines, equating and scaling of MBE performance will inappropriately depress those scores. Those scores, in turn, will lower scores on the essay and MPT portions of the exam. The combined effect of these missteps is likely to produce noticeable–and undeserved–declines in scores for examinees who are just as qualified as those who passed the bar in previous years.

Remember that I’m not referring here to graduates who perform well below the passing score. If you believe that the bar exam is a proper measure of entry-level competence, then those test-takers deserve to fail. The problem is that an increased number of unqualified examinees will drag down scores for more able test-takers. Some of those scores will drop enough to push qualified examinees below the passing line.

Looking Ahead

NCBE, unfortunately, has not been responsive on issues related to their equating and scaling processes. It seems unlikely that the organization will address the problem described here. There is no doubt, meanwhile, that entry-level qualifications of law students have declined. If bar passage rates fall, as they almost surely will, it will be easy to blame all of the decline on less able graduates.

This leaves three avenues for concerned educators and policymakers:

1. Continue to press for more transparency and oversight of NCBE. Testing requires confidentiality, but safeguards are essential to protect individual examinees and public trust of the process.

2. Take a tougher stand against law schools with low bar passage rates. As professionals, we already have an obligation to protect aspirants to our ranks. Self interest adds a potent kick to that duty. As you view the qualifications of students matriculating at schools with low bar passage rates, remember: those matriculants will affect your school’s bar passage rate.

3. Push for alternative ways to measure attorney competence. New lawyers need to know basic doctrinal principles, and law schools should teach those principles. A closed-book, multiple-choice exam covering seven broad subject areas, however, is not a good measure of doctrinal knowledge. It is even worse when performance on that exam sets the curve for scores on other, more useful parts of the bar exam (such as the performance tests). And the situation is worse still when a single organization, with little oversight, controls scoring of that crucial multiple-choice exam.

I have some suggestions for how we might restructure the bar exam, but those ideas must wait for another post. For now, remember: On the bar exam, all graduates are your graduates.

* For a recent review of the literature on changing proficiencies, see Sonya Powers & Michael J. Kolen, Evaluating Equating Accuracy and Assumptions for Groups That Differ in Performance, 51 J. Educ. Measurement 39 (2014). A more reader-friendly overview is available in this online chapter (note particularly the statements on p. 274).


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