The July 2011 CA Bar Exam results showed once again that the State’s overall pass rates are awful. The overall pass rate was 54.8%, by far the lowest in the nation.
While we at Celebration Bar Review had much higher overall pass rates (close to 70%) that’s still a significant number of failures and it’s caused me to spend some time trying to analyze the bigger picture of what’s going on with the California exam, and more specifically the scoring.
Here’s my theory:The most important score in California has apparently become the MBE number.
If it is not a passing equivalent (approx 128 raw or 1440 scaled) it doesn’t appear that the written part of the exam is being graded in such a way as to be truly “compensatory.” In other words, in some jurisdictions (such as Georgia) if the applicant’s MBE score is not high enough, the essays are not graded at all and a failing result is applied. In California, the same result is achieved but without quite as much candor. If the MBE score is not at a passing level, I think the essays and performance tests are only read in a perfunctory manner and assigned a relatively narrow range of scores. This quick scoring level (50-60) is simply not enough to overcome the lower MBE score and so the result is a nearly “automatic” failure.
What I’m seeing from those students who failed is that when their MBE score is below passing, the written Raw scores are nearly uniform at 570-580 total. I don’t think this is a coincidence, particularly since the quality of the practice and actual essays of these students varied by far more than the 10 points shown in the official score results.
If my theory is incorrect, we should see a lot of results from applicants with a “passing” MBE score but a failing written score and an overall fail. In my experience, that is not happening now. If you had such a score, I’d love to see your score sheet.
Otherwise, I think what we’re really seeing is a de-facto non-grading of the written part of the exam based on the applicant’s MBE score. In a perverse way, it makes sense for the examiners to do this since it minimizes grader resources on those exams that statistically have a much lower or nearly impossible chance of becoming an overall passing test. This would allow graders to spend more time on written work that could in fact tip the compensatory balance in favor of passing or failing.
Still, I think it would be far more forthcoming to simply acknowledge this process or to require a minimum MBE threshold before the essays are read and graded. Until that time, we will focus on the MBE score first for our California students and the written work secondarily.