California Bar Results Hit New Low on February 2018 Exam

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California Bar Results Hit New Low on February 2018 Exam

Last month, the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California released the results of this year’s February Bar Examination, and they were … dispiriting. Only 27.3 percent of test-takers completing the February 2018 California bar exam passed, making it the lowest passage rate in recorded history.

The California bar has results available dating back to the fall of 1951, when 391 of 1041 test-takers passed (37.6 percent). Before February’s test, only three other exams had a passage rate below 30 percent, all three of which took place from 1983 to 1986. The highest pass rate for a test ever was the 1962 fall exam, which 63.4 percent of test-takers passed. The table below shows the results of every exam since July 2008, when 61.7 percent of examinees passed.

California Bar Results Table

Is this low score merely an aberration? After all, isn’t the February bar exam “supposed” to have the lower pass rate? That is often the case, mostly due to the greater proportion of repeat test-takers in February. Dating back to 1988, the February passage rate is only 40.5 percent among all takers, compared to 54.3 percent for July. But there is still reason to believe the California bar has become less forgiving. The graph below shows the historical passage rate all exams with available results. There is a noticeable downward historical trendline.

California Bar Passage Rate Chart

Using the linear trendline as the forecast, the historical passage rate in 2018 is over 7 percent lower than in 1951, going down at about .1 percent per year. Obviously this doesn’t tell the whole story, and results are highly volatile, meaning they vary a lot from test to test and year to year.

But the table below shows passage rates by decade, which further reflects that general downward trend. There was a resurgence in the 1990s, when the number of test-takers decreased -- followed by a slow descent in the 2000s and 2010s.

California Bar Exam results by decade

The 2010s have had the lowest overall passage rate since the brutal 1980s. The 1980s’ passage rate was 43.7 percent, while this decade’s has been 46.4 percent. The 2000s join the 1980s and 2010s as decades with passage rates below 50 percent.

It doesn’t take much imagination to hypothesize that passing scores are designed to suppress the number of new attorneys. Over 120,000 testers completed the bar exam in the 1980s and 2000s -- the 1990s saw a noticeable dip. Using the average number of test-takers on exams so far in the 2010s, there are expected to be over 129,000 testers who take the California bar this decade. Even with conservative estimates of test-takers in 2019, the total number of California bar takers will pass the high total from the 2000s.

There are many possible culprits for the downward trend in passage rates besides "engineered" passage scores to deflate the number of new attorneys. Other possible attributable factors include decreasing MBE scores, increasing numbers of repeat-takers, less competitive law school admissions, insufficient preparation of students by law schools, unreasonable passing scores set by the state bar, the inability of younger students to adequately prepare for the examination, or increased exam difficulty. The blame is likely on a variety of factors, but two things are certain: California will likely continue to have one of the lowest passage rates in the country (even among first-time test takers) and the finger-pointing among test-takers, the bar, and law schools will continue.

It would take an abysmal passage rate on the next three exams for the 2010s to be the most difficult decade for the California bar exam on record -- a probable passage rate below 30.4 percent. But if the last bar is any indication, then the 2010s could do for a decade what February 2018 did for one test: show us the lowest passage rates the California bar has ever seen.

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