Bar Exam

Pass rates for first-time bar-takers decrease; are online classes the cause?

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Aspects of law school remote learning during the pandemic, including open-book tests, are being blamed by some for first-time bar pass rate decreases in at least 31 jurisdictions.

Most 2022 graduates had in-person classes until March 2020, which was during their first year of law school. Remote classes followed, including for much of the 2021 school year.

“What we have seen anecdotally is that students with most of their legal education online did not fare as well as students in the traditional modality,” says Raul Ruiz, an associate professor and assistant dean of bar exam preparation at Florida International University College of Law.

The school’s July 2022 first-time pass rate for the Florida bar was 81.2%, compared with 88.8% in July 2021. Florida’s overall first-time pass rate was 64.4% for July 2022 and 71.6% in July 2021, according to data from the Florida Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, various law schools are adding hybrid online JD programs, and some academic support faculty members say more investigation and data analysis are needed to determine whether the offerings are effective regarding bar passage.

Between May 2020 and October 2022, nine law schools filed applications for substantive change seeking ABA approval for part-time hybrid distance-education JD programs. So far, four programs have been approved by the council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

Also, the council greenlit Syracuse University’s application to continue its hybrid distance education program and gave the go-ahead for Loyola University Los Angeles and St. Mary’s University to convert part-time JD programs to online classes. At Loyola, the program started in fall 2022 and is a hybrid online offering, while St. Mary’s received a May 2021 acquiescence from the council to deliver its part-time program online.

“I think the ABA needs to conduct additional studies on the effectiveness of remote learning, and if they have any data on that as it relates to bar passage, they need to release it publicly,” Ruiz says. The ABA does publish law school pass rates, but in-person and online graduate results are lumped together rather than parsed out by program type.

Experiences in online classes as well as the number of remote courses taken varies widely, Bill Adams, managing director of ABA Accreditation and Legal Education, told the ABA Journal in an email. According to Adams, few graduates of ABA-accredited online JD programs have taken a bar yet. Those programs are reviewed on an ongoing basis, he explained, and the council will assess bar outcomes when “a sufficient” number of graduates take a bar exam.

“Students and law schools tackled many challenges the past couple of years. Jumping to the conclusion that online learning has had a significant impact on bar outcomes is speculative at best,” Adams added.

For the multiple-choice section of the test—known as the Multistate Bar Exam and graded by the National Conference of Bar Examiners—the mean scaled score for July 2022 was 140.3, compared with 140.4 in July 2021. All bar exams with NCBE materials were in person for the July 2022 administration. The previous year, 30 jurisdictions had remote tests. According to the NCBE, research shows scores between remote and in-person exams are consistent.

Mike Sims, president of BARBRI, says a wider distribution of MBE scores and lower essay scores contributed to first-time pass rate declines.

“Because most of the bar exam-takers in July 2022 took most of their law school exams as open-book. They had very little experience with a high-stakes closed-book exam,” Sims says.

In states where pass rates decreased, 270 was the average cut score; in jurisdictions with pass rate increases, the average cut score was 265, according to Sims.

“This suggests that many people who failed probably failed by just a very narrow margin,” he adds.

Tia Gibbs, director of bar success at Florida State University College of the Law, also thinks essay exam scores could have led to decreases in first-time pass rates. Besides many law school tests being open-book for 2022 graduates, she says the exams often were not due until the following day.

“So they’re not really good with memorization, and a lot of them are also not good with a timed test,” Gibbs adds.

At her school, the first-time pass rate for the July bar exam improved, from 73.9% in 2021 to 74.9% percent in 2022. As part of bar prep, FSU College of Law offered candidates two mock tests during the summer. Some avoided the offerings fearing they’d do poorly, but others who took both and saw improvement said the process helped with test anxiety, according to Gibbs.

Despite some faculty misgivings, the vast majority of law students, including those who graduated in 2022, were satisfied with online learning, according to a recent report from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement. But Meera Deo, a Southwestern Law School professor who directs the survey, says there are some aspects of in-person learning that can’t be replicated remotely.

“For example, we know deep discussions with people who are different from you lead to better understanding of black letter law and better recall later. Those conversations are common when students are hanging out after class or studying together late into the night, but they don’t really happen over Zoom,” she says.

Others claim it’s hard for students to get extra faculty help when classes are remote. Denise DeForest, director of academic support at the University of Colorado Law School, says in-person office hours may be important if a class is online. At her school, the first-time pass rate for the July 2022 Colorado exam was 83%, compared with 87% last year. Overall, the state had a first-time pass rate of 75% for July 2022, compared with 80% in July 2021.

A somewhat new classroom rule for DeForest is that everyone attending remotely must turn on their cameras. She says when all classes were remote, if one student turned off the webcam, others would follow suit.

“And I didn’t hear a peep out of anyone,” DeForest says.

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