Bar Exam

Several states consider lowering cut scores on bar exam, making it easier to pass

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Rhode Island has followed California’s lead in lowering the bar exam cut score to make the test easier to pass, a step that several other states are also considering.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court lowered the score needed to pass the bar exam from 276 to 270 and made the change retroactive to the February 2021 exam, Bloomberg Law reports. The court said in its March 25 order that it was following the recommendation of the state’s board of bar examiners.

Rhode Island didn’t give any further reason for the change. But many states are considering a lower cut score in hopes that will increase access to justice and lawyer diversity, according to Bloomberg Law.

The change will likely have no impact on ethics cases, according two recent studies. They found no relationship between cut scores and the number of disciplinary complaints, charges and actions, according to Bloomberg Law.

Rhode Island’s move followed decisions by several other states to temporarily lower cut scores for the October 2020 exam. They are Washington, Oregon, North Carolina and Hawaii, according to Bloomberg Law. The states cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason. All except Oregon extended the lower cut scores through the February 2021 exam, and Washington said it was extending the lower score at least through July.

Bloomberg Law asked bar exam authorities and top courts across the nation whether they were considering a lower passing score. Among the states that said they may be making some changes to their bar exams are Idaho, Texas, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Carolina and Utah, although not all of those states specifically said they could change cut scores. Many said they were awaiting more information before making a decision.

Bloomberg Law found that cut scores aren’t uniform, even in the 38 states that use the uniform bar exam. The cut scores in these states range from 260 to 280. The cutoff is determined by state courts and bar exam authorities.

California lowered its cut score from 1439 to 1390 in July 2020. Lowering the score by about 3.5% produced a bar pass rate that was about 15% higher than would have been expected using the higher score, a bar spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law.

Comparing first-time test-takers on California’s October 2020 exam with those in July 2019, when the cut score was higher, shows the lower cut score boosted diversity, according to Bloomberg Law. The lower cut score produced passing grades for 28.5% more Latino test-takers, for 25.8% more Asian test-takers, for 23.9% more Black test-takers, and for 20.8% more white test-takers.

Other possible reasons for higher passage rates include the move to online tests and a reduction in multiple choice questions.

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