Are remote learning and burnout to blame for declining bar pass rates?
Bar exam pass rates dropped in July 2021, and some fear another decrease for 2022 graduates nationally because most candidates will have experienced at least half their legal education during the pandemic. Related problems mentioned by academics include getting used to online learning, isolation, anxiety and exhaustion.
“They have had the largest pandemic impact compared to any prior class,” says Afton Cavanaugh, the assistant dean for law success at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.
According to data released by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the national mean scaled score for the July 2021 Multistate Bar Exam was 140.4. A news release compared it with the July 2019 national mean scaled score, which was 141.1. The release claims comparisons between 2020 and 2021 exams are of limited value because 2020 had more test administrations and fewer candidates.
“Across the country it seems like bar passage rates went down somewhat, but I would say most people would say 2020 is not a fair comparison. I don’t think you can compare 2020 with anything,” says Susan Salmon, director of legal writing at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. In that state, the July 2021 bar passage rate is 65% compared to 66% for the July 2019 bar. Arizona had a July 2020 bar with a pass rate of 80.7%, in addition to an October remote exam, which had a 45% pass rate.
In Texas, where Cavanaugh’s school is located, the state switched to a Uniform Bar Exam in 2021. Last year, it replaced the July bar exam with a test given at hotels in September and an October remote exam as well. The state’s July 2021 pass rate was 68.29% compared to 76.66% for September 2020, and 60.13% for October 2020
Other large jurisdictions also saw pass rate decreases. In New York, the July 2021 pass rate was 63% compared to 84% for October 2020. And in California, which had an October 2020 pass rate of 60.7%, the July 2021 pass rate was 53%.
In Florida, the July 2021 pass rate increased to 61%. It was 57% for the October 2020 administration, and 62% for July 2019, according to data from the NCBE.
Also, the October 2020 remote exam was shorter than the traditional bar exam; however, pass rates decreased in some jurisdictions that had in-person July exams for 2020 and 2021. That includes Alabama, which had a 52.6% bar pass rate for July 2021 compared with 71.1% in July 2020.
Candidate burnout is likely a factor, says Melissa Hale, president of the Association of Academic Support Educators. She is the director of academic success and bar programs at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and also chairs the Association of American Law Schools’ section on academic support.
“Law school is always stressful, then you add on the pandemic. And you add in a year and a half of Zoom law school,” she says. “It’s not students’ fault. They are just in a really bad position to have done so much of their law school career online, during the pandemic.”
Some students taking the July 2021 remote exam had technology glitches, including screens going blank for a few seconds during the essay section, according to Hale. The section has six questions with a time limit of 30 minutes each.
“From a testing perspective, even if your glitch is resolved in 10 seconds, imagine how that throws you off your time,” says Hale, who thinks the problem could lead to students failing the bar.
“With students I’ve seen and colleagues I’ve spoken with, there’s a significant amount of students who if they had just one or two more points on an essay they would have made it over the hurdle,” she adds.
The blank-screen issue affected bar candidates nationwide, according to the State Bar of California. Its news release claims 31% of California bar examinees reported having one or more technical issues. A scoring adjustment was made for California test-takers with those problems, according to the agency’s office of admissions. The writing states the problem occurred because of high-memory utilization between the exams video proctoring piece and the software that generates digital images.
The Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar announced in August that results would be delayed, because candidates experienced technical issues during the test. Results were released Oct. 7, and the pass rate was 67%, according to the NCBE website.
Illinois had a remote bar in October 2020 with 75% pass rate, Nancy Vincent, administrative director of the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar, wrote in a February 2021 web post.
Mike Sims, the president of BARBRI, says course completion for the bar prep program was down approximately 3% for July 2021 examinees compared to those who took the 2020 bar.
“I think it was because of exhaustion. These students had endeared online law school and a pandemic. They just had comparatively less to give,” he adds.
Classes for BARBRI remained remote for the summer of 2021. The offering saw increases in popularity before the pandemic, but Sims says they will consider bringing back in-person classes for the summer of 2022, if there’s enough interest.
“I think the pandemic reminds people of the importance of interpersonal relations and being together. Some of that togetherness now takes place on Reddit,” he adds.