Are the Bar Results for Real?

Commentary

Don LeDuc, President and Dean | November 07, 2012

 

The July 2012 Michigan bar examination results for Michigan's law schools are shocking, as were the February 2012 results. Compared to the results in the past five years, these outcomes are so low that they deserve serious scrutiny. There are only two possible explanations for this precipitous downturn—either all of Michigan's law schools have experienced a sudden and common decline in their admissions standards, in the nature of their educational programs and assessment practices, and in the quality of their graduates; or there is a problem in the 2012 examination process itself.

The chart that follows examines the 2012 results compared to the previous five years. In sum:

Detroit Mercy's first-time rate of 54% was down 11% overall in 2012 and down more than 10% in both February and July 2012, compared to the 2011 figures. 2012 is the lowest rate in the past five years, which averaged 76% and ranged from 65% to 86%. The 2012 results were 22% below the five-year average.

Michigan's first-time rate of 83% was down 10% overall in 2012, down 8% in February, and down 10% in July, compared to the 2011 figures. 2012 is the lowest rate in the past five years, which averaged 94% and ranged from 92% to 95%. The 2012 results were 11% below the five-year average.

Michigan State University's first-time rate of 66% was down 21% overall in 2012, down 19% in February, and down 21% in July, compared to the 2011 figures. 2012 is the lowest rate in the past five years, which averaged 86% and ranged from 80% to 91%. The 2012 results were 20% below the five-year average.

Thomas M. Cooley's first-time rate of 57% was down 25% overall in 2012, down 23% in February, and down 27% in July, compared to the 2011 figures. 2012 is the lowest rate in the past five years, which averaged 80% and ranged from 75% to 85%. The 2012 results were 23% below the five-year average.

Wayne State University's first-time rate of 68% was down 9% overall in 2012, down 21% in February, and down 8% in July, compared to 2011 figures. 2012 is the lowest rate in the past five years, which averaged 86% and ranged from 77% to 92%. The 2012 results were 18% below the five-year average.

The reported first-time passing rate for 2012 is far out of line with previous Michigan and national results. During the past five-year period from 2007 to 2011, Michigan's first-time passing rates were 86%, 82%, 89%, 85%, and 82%, an average of 84.8%. Over the same five-year period, the national average passing rate was 79.6% (79% in four of the five years and 82% in the fifth). Michigan has averaged 5.2% higher than the national average over this period.

Assuming the same rate of passing on appeal this July as last year, Michigan's final first-time rate for July 2012 will be 64%, and the combined passing rate for 2012 will be 65%. That will be 14.6% below the national average of the past five years and a total decline of 19.8%, a precipitous fall from well-above average to the bottom 2% in bar passage. In the past five years, only California (65% in 2010), Louisiana (63% in 2007 and 65% in 2010), and Wyoming (62% in 2011) have reported a first-time rate of 65% or less, which is 1.6% of the 250 reports from the 50 states over the past five years.

While it is possible that an individual Michigan law school might have sudden, deteriorating quality among its graduates or that the quality of all schools might deteriorate over a five-year period of time, it defies logic and experience that all Michigan's law schools would suddenly and simultaneously experience a decline in results of the magnitude represented in 2012. The only other possibilities are that the quality of the examination questions has altered or that the evaluation and scoring of the examination answers have declined.

Given these results, each law school should review its efforts to improve its bar results, but it is clear from this data that the main problem lies with the examination itself and not with the law schools. Cooley will certainly review our admission, teaching, grading, and bar preparation efforts, including finding ways to increase the efforts of our students and graduates to prepare for the examination. While we can make some adjustments without waiting for a full evaluation of the possible causes, Michigan's law schools should guard against making radical changes until we know more.  

The 2012 results are a great disservice to those who took the examination and to the law schools, an issue that should have been addressed by the Supreme Court and the Board of Law Examiners before these results were released. These bodies and the law schools have a common responsibility to assure that the bar examination is a valid vehicle for assuring that those who seek to enter the legal profession have a minimally acceptable level of competence. I cannot speak for the other Michigan law school deans, but for myself I cannot accept that the 2012 results validly assessed our graduates. In short, these results are not for real. The Supreme Court must take the lead to correct the anomaly evidenced in the 2012 examinations, and it must do so immediately.

Michigan February Bar Results (Before Appeals) 2007-2012

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