Legal Education

More law school deans call for lowering California bar exam cut score

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Law school deans at public hearings this week in San Francisco and Los Angeles called on the state of California to lower its bar exam cut score.

Traditionally, the cut score is set by the state’s bar exam committee, but in in July the California Supreme Court amended the rule, asserting its own authority to determine the score. In February, the court directed the state bar—an administrative arm of the judiciary—to do a series of comprehensive bar exam studies, including cut score review.

The state bar commissioned a standard setting study, which offered two suggestions: Set a new interim bar exam cut score at 1414 from the current 1440, or make no change to the current score.

Among those who spoke Tuesday in San Francisco were Anthony Niedwiecki of Golden Gate University School of Law, Courthouse News Service reports. He said a shift in teaching strategy is needed.

“With California scores so out of sync with other states, California schools are required to spend more time teaching students how to take the bar exam instead of providing them the essential skills and opportunity to engage with clients in real practice,” Niedwiecki said.

Only 26 percent of 148 Golden Gate graduates sitting for the July 2016 California bar passed it, according to a supplemental statistics report (PDF) posted on TaxProf Blog.

David Faigman, dean of the University of California San Francisco Hastings College of Law and a recent appointee to the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Education, advocated for California using a cut score that is comparable to other states. According to him, the median bar exam cut score nationally is 135.

“Doing something because everyone else is doing it may not be the best basis for action, but when the lives and careers of so many students are at stake, it’s a whole lot better than departing from what everyone else does for no reason whatsoever,” Faigman said.

The July 2016 California bar passage rate for his school was 48 percent of 333 total test-takers, according to the supplemental statistics report.

Jennifer Mnookin, the dean of the UCLA School of Law, is also pushing for a 135 cut score, reported.

“If we are going to retain a minimum competency level that is unusually, atypically high we need to have very good evidence that we get a performance benefit from that decision,” she said Monday in Los Angeles. “But right now we do not have that evidence. There is absolutely no evidence that California’s unusually high cut score actually produces better lawyers than states like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois. None.”

Out of 284 UCLA law grads who took the July 2016 California bar, 80 percent passed, according to the supplemental statistics report.

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