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California High Court Leaves Bar Exam Pass Score Untouched

The California Supreme Court will not be lowering the minimum score necessary to pass the state bar exam, according to a letter sent to the bar’s president and executive director on Wednesday. 

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The California Supreme Court will not be lowering the minimum score necessary to pass the state bar exam, according to a letter sent to the bar’s president and executive director on Wednesday.

“Although the current pass score of 1440 will not be adjusted at this time, the court will consider any appropriate recommendation to revisit the pass score in the next review cycle, or sooner if the court so directs,” six of the state’s Supreme Court justices wrote.

In February, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye directed the bar to study all issues affecting passage rates and determine whether Californians are actually better served by maintaining the 1440 cut score. The bar hired educational-assessment expert Chad Buckendahl to run the study, which took place over two days in May. The study’s panel, comprising 20 practicing attorneys, recommended either no change to the current cut score or to adopt an interim passing score of 1410.

But law school deans have urged lowering the passing score to at least 1390, arguing a high cut score cannot predict whether an applicant is minimally competent to practice law. California currently has the second highest cut score in the nation, second only to Delaware.

At its annual meeting in September, the state bar’s board of trustees voted not to recommend any option to the high court, instead sending the court a range of possibilities: keeping the score where it is, lowering the score to 1410 or lowering it to 1390.

Whatever changes the high court made would have retroactively applied to the record 9,837 candidates who took the test in July.

In a statement, bar president Michael Colantuono said, "We thank the court for providing swift guidance in response to the passing score study so that the state bar has certainty for grading the July 2017 bar exam.”

In its letter, the high court said more data is needed to make a final decision.

“The court is not persuaded that the relevant information and data developed at this time weigh in favor of departing from the longstanding pass score of 1440,” the court’s letter said. “In making this determination, the court expects the state bar to complete its other bar exam studies and to continue analyzing whether the exam or any of its components might warrant modification.”

While the justices recognized passage rates have fallen, they noted the state’s declining passage rate from 2007-2016 corresponds to the average 9 percent drop in exam passage rates nationwide.

In their letter, the justices said the state bar and law schools should work together to examine what factors, such as student metrics and law school curricula, might have on falling passage rates, and how that information might help “improve academic instruction for the benefit of law students preparing for licensure and practice.”

The justices also asked what impact recent changes – including making the July 2017 exam a two-day exam and equally weighting written and multiple choice portions – might have on adjusting the pass score.

“Examination of these matters could shed light on whether potential improvements in law school admission, education, and graduation standards and in state bar testing for licensure, combined with effective regulatory oversight of legal education, could raise bar exam pass rates and thereby reduce financial hardship for exam takers, and boost the availability of competent and effective attorneys across all demographics and for all Californians,” the justices said.

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