Bar exam scores continuing to fall

NEW YORK — Law graduates are increasingly getting a taste of failure before they start their careers. Performance on the bar exam has continued to slip, early results show.

The average score on the multiple-choice portion of the July test fell 1.6 points from the previous year to its lowest level since 1988, according to data provided to Bloomberg by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

“It was not unexpected,” said Erica Moeser, president of the NCBE. “We are in a period where we can expect to see some decline until the market for going to law school improves.”


Law schools have been admitting students with lower qualifications who “may encounter difficulty” when taking the bar, Moeser said. 

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About a dozen states have published their pass rates, and the numbers are worse than last year, when graduates performed historically badly. Pass rates for students who took the test in July were down in most states that have reported results.

“The decline in student quality continues to affect the results,” said Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law. As fewer people apply to law schools, the programs have started filling their campuses with students who aren’t as qualified as they used to be.

That strategy produced a crisis in 2014, when scores on the multiple-choice portion of the test registered their largest year-over-year drop in four decades. 

That prompted a vicious debate between law school deans and the organization that creates the exam. Deans said the test was unfair and that a software glitch that made it harder to submit test results may have hurt some students. Moeser charged that schools were letting in students who did not have a good shot at passing the test.


This year’s results are among the most important in the exam’s history, because they will offer a clearer sense of whether last year’s failure rate was an anomaly or the start of a bad run. So far, the numbers are pointing in the wrong direction for the nation’s law schools.

In Mississippi, the pass rate on the July exam plunged from 71 percent in July 2014 to 51 percent this year. In Oklahoma and New Mexico, pass rates slumped 11 percentage points and 12 percentage points, respectively. Most states haven’t yet revealed how their graduates fared.

Still, Muller said, the early results show that graduates will keep getting hammered by the test as long as law schools keep lowering their admissions standards. “You can only train students so far and so much, a lot depends on ability,” he said.