Results for the February 2020 California Bar Exam were released on May 8 and the news was not pretty. Which is an understatement. In fact, the news was awful for the 73.2% of exam takers that did not pass the exam.
Let’s put the 26.8% pass rate in some context. While, February 2020 is the lowest pass rate in the history of the California Bar Exam, it was also the lowest amount of test takers in 17 years. 4,205 applicants took the exam in February 2020. By comparison, one year earlier in February 2019, 4,639 applicants took the exam (with a 31.4% pass rate). That’s a decrease of around 10% of applicants.
One of the reasons that so few people took the February 2020 exam is that the pass rate for the prior July 2019 exam (50.1%) was the highest in 7 years. With fewer applicants taking the February 2020 exam, each applicant’s weight on the pass rate was much greater. Of course, this does not explain why the pass rate was abysmally low. But it should be noted that a much smaller than usual amount of people participated in the exam in February 2020.
The February 2020 national mean MBE score was an all time low
The mean national MBE score for February 2020 was 132.6 – an all time low. The previous historic low national MBE mean was 132.8 in February 2018. Not coincidentally, the California Bar Exam pass rate for February 2018 was abysmal as well (27.3% – the previous all time low for the California Bar Exam).
So it seems that low mean national MBE scores heavily influence pass rates in California. This became particularly pronounced when California changed the format of the exam in July 2017, and increased the value of the MBE to 50% of the total score (up from 33.3%). In short, every time the MBE average dips, the California pass rate follows.
Why was the national MBE at a historic low in February 2020? It’s unclear. Were test takers less capable than any group of national examinees in history? Another possible explanation is that the MBE was simply more difficult in February 2020. Or perhaps the questions tested did not resemble practice questions provided by the commercial review courses.
In purely anecdotal evidence, the essay scores we have seen at BarEssays for the February 2020 California Bar exam written section seem no better or worse than usual. BarEssays plans to post more than 100 essays from the February 2020 exam to the database, including high scoring and low scoring examples to every February 2020 essay and the PT. We have already reviewed score reports from a large number of students from the February 2020 exam. The essay scores are remarkably consistent with prior exams, further leading us to believe that lower MBE scores were chiefly responsible for the historically low pass rate.
Of course, without additional data from the bar examiners, we are unable to say with certainty that the MBE was the primary cause of the low pass rate, but we firmly believe the MBE played a large role.
Does the low February 2020 pass rate merit a rethink of the MBE?
With lowest ever national MBE scores playing a large role in the lowest ever California Bar Exam pass rate, is it time to rethink the MBE? We previously posed this question after a prominent law professor advocated for a written-only exam.
Since then, the country has been in the middle of a pandemic that caused many states, including California, to move the exam online. As we previously wrote, moving the bar exam online creates a specific problematic issue with the MBE, because it is not clear that the multiple choice exam can be securely provided online.
Following our prior article, several states decided to move ahead with an online written-only exam and dump the MBE, at least for this summer. This includes Nevada, Michigan and Indiana (with more states potentially following suit).
Significantly, Nevada and Michigan indicated that they may never return to the MBE. The Nevada State bar wrote in a petition filed with the Nevada Supreme Court that “…the essay portion is the more valid measure of minimum competence, something the MBE lacks.” Similarly, Michigan’s state bar emphasized that its essay-only exam “will adequately test the applicants’ legal knowledge and skill.” In short, if the written portion is “more valid” and can “adequately” test applications, why go back to the MBE?
What about California? To date, it remains unclear if California will be able to provide an online MBE for the September 2020 exam. If California is unable to deliver a secure online MBE for the September 2020 bar exam, will it follow the lead of other states and provide a written only exam? Or will they construct their own multiple choice exam? We shall see.
Are large commercial bar exam review courses doing a good job?
Can we at least partially blame the large commercial review courses for low pass rates? Most students take a large commercial review course. These courses are incredibly expensive. Yet most students fail the exam.
If the large commercial review course pass rates are low, they should absolutely be criticized. Why are students shelling out thousands of dollars for a review course that is not preparing them for the exam? How do the large courses justify their incredibly high fees?
Not only does it seem that students were not prepared for the MBE in February 2020, but the large review courses are also notoriously deficient in preparing students for the written portion of the exam. Students often complain that review course essay feedback is unprofessional and their model answers are unrealistic. In fact, it is for this reason that BarEssays became popular as a supplement, because it allows students to properly self calibrate their progress with real high and low scoring graded answers instead of relying on unsatisfactory review course written feedback and material.
Perhaps it is time for the large commercial review courses to step up to the plate and provide a better product.