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MBE Scores Fall to Their Lowest Ever

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 12, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A picture could tell this story much better, but imagine this: a cliff with a drop-off so steep you cannot see the bottom.

That's what the latest Multi-state Bar Exam results look like. It's not just bad; it's scary bad. The drop-off is so steep, it makes President Trump's approval ratings look good.

According to reports, these are the worst test results since bar examiners started keeping track. It is the third year in a row that test scores have fallen a full point, showing a trend that suggests even more students will fail the bar exam this year.

Cut Scores

Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law who follows these trends, made a graph to show what's going on. He scaled the mean MBE scores to illustrate how they affect overall bar pass rates, as the MBE results fall below the cut-off point in more states.

"[T]he reason for the perilous drop in bar pass rates is because this is exactly the spot where the mean scores have begun to hit the cut scores in many jurisdictions," he said.

Muller said the test results show that bar takers are performing a little worse in a relative sense. But when their results are put up against the cut scores, it shows where they have the most dramatic national impact.

The chart shows how the mean score weighs across various jurisdictions, such as Illinois and New York, where the cut score is 133. It also shows the mean score has never passed in California, which has a cut-off at 144.

Lower Cut-Off?

After California bar exam results last year fell to their lowest in 32 years, law school deans started pushing for a lower cut score. State Bar director Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker told legislators in February that there was "no good answer" for the 144 cut score -- the second-highest in the nation.

The legislators wanted to know about the issue because deans from 20 of the 21 California's ABA-accredited law schools had asked the state Supreme Court for help. The deans asked the court to lower the score while they study the problem.

Robert Anderson, professor at Pepperdine's law school, says the bar exam is not the problem. He said law schools are the problem because they lowered admission standards.

Due to economic pressures in recent years, law school enrollments dropped by about 30 percent nationwide. Anderson said that many law schools lowered admission standards, when they should have cut faculty to make up for lost tuition.

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