Posted November 12, 2014 2:57 PM
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State bar exam pass rate drops to 80.9

Harold J. Krent
Harold J. Krent
David N. Yellen
David N. Yellen
Bruce L. Ottley
Bruce L. Ottley
John E. Corkery
John E. Corkery
By Jack Silverstein
Law Bulletin staff writer

Takers of Illinois’ July bar exam passed at an 80.9 percent rate, a 4.3 percentage-point drop from last year.

And members of the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar and state law school deans anticipate another decline next year.

The passing rate could sink another 10 percent, they said, as the state’s minimum passing score — known as a cut score — is set to increase eight points in 2015.

The need for a jump in the cut score, from 264 to 272, is currently being debated by the IBAB and the state’s law deans.

“I’ve seen no compelling reasons for the state board to raise the cut score, particularly because the pass rate independently has gone down,” said Harold J. Krent, dean of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

“I’m very concerned that the Illinois bar should only raise the cut score if it has a compelling reason. And I have not heard that compelling reason.”

IIT Chicago-Kent’s 86.1 percent overall passing rate — which combines first-timers with others who have failed in the past — was third in the state, according to results released by the schools, behind the University of Chicago Law School (96 percent) and Northwestern University School of Law (93.57).

Rounding out the list were DePaul University College of Law (85.59), University of Illinois College of Law (83.19), Southern Illinois University School of Law (83.13), Northern Illinois University College of Law (80), Loyola University Chicago School of Law (79.37) and The John Marshall Law School (76). Out-of-state graduates passed at a rate of 76.82 percent.

The state’s overall passing rate has declined in the past five years, from 89 percent in 2009 down to 80.9 percent this year.

“I still hope that the board of bar examiners can be persuaded to abandon that seriously misguided plan,” said David N. Yellen, Loyola’s dean.

“They claim that too many student graduates are passing the bar with inadequate writing ability. They claim that … if they make 10 percent more people fail, they think they will be failing people with lesser writing abilities.”

The question of writing quality has indeed driven the IBAB’s decision, said Regina Kwan Peterson, the board’s director of administration.

“The bar exam essay graders in the board had some communications three or four years back, and they discussed how the quality of writing among bar applicants had deteriorated,” Peterson said.

The state’s 27 graders have spent an average of 15 years grading bar exams, she said, so their comments regarding low writing quality led to “crunching numbers” about the test.

“We did see that it was possible to pass the bar exam with very low essay scores,” Peterson said.

Illinois weighs both the essay portion and the multiple choice portion — the Multistate Bar Examination, or MBE — at an equal 50 percent. To pass the bar, students must score a combined 264, with no minimum required score on either part.

In July, the average MBE score for Illinois test-takers was 147. That means test-takers who reached that average could score as low as 117 on the writing portion — “an unacceptably low writing score,” Peterson said — and still pass the bar.

Instead, by raising the overall score to 272 without implementing a required score on either portion, test-takers scoring the 147 average would only have to reach 125 on the writing test.

Peterson said the board made its decision to raise the cut score to 272 — rather than implementing a minimum writing score — on the advice of test-development experts who said that giving too much weight to the writing portion will make a less reliable test since the MBE is, in Peterson’s words, the bar exam’s “gold standard.”

The national MBE score fell to 141.5, a 2.8-point drop from 2013, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, a drop that’s considered significant.

“It’s intuitive that when scores on a standardized test drop nationwide, there was a problem with the test, not the test-takers,” Yellen said.

In June 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court approved a cut score increase to 268 for July 2013 and to 272 for July 2015. That first step was skipped in May 2013, but the eight-point cut score takes effect as scheduled.

The board plans to review law deans’ concerns and could ask the Supreme Court to cancel or revise the increase plan.

Yellen and DePaul’s interim dean, Bruce L. Ottley, expressed concern about the impact the cut score will have on minority students due to the cost of bar preparation courses and the cultural bias of standardized tests.

“The studies show that more minorities tend to fail the exam the first time,” Ottley said. “Many will pass it the second time. But it’s a hurdle you don’t want to go through a second time. The fear is that it will have a disproportionate impact on minority law students.”

Law school officials and the IBAB last met in October to discuss the cut score. Dean John E. Corkery of John Marshall said the mood of that meeting was “reflective.”

Corkery anticipates the ongoing discussion about cut scores to be “interesting.” The two sides are expected to meet again next month.

“We’re not done with this yet,” Ottley said. “I think the deans are still not happy about this. We still want to put our two cents in about this. I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. But we still want to make it very clear to the board of bar examiners that this is a drastic step to take.”

 

2014 JULY ILLINOIS BAR EXAMINATION STATISTICS
School Total Pass Pass % Fail Fail % First-Time
Test Takers
Pass Pass % Fail Fail % Test
Retakers
Pass Pass % Fail Fail %
U. of Chicago 75 72 96.00 3 4.00 75 72 96.00 3 4.00 0 0 N/A 0 N/A
Northwestern 140 131 93.57 9 6.43 138 129 93.48 9 6.52 2 2 100.00 0 0.00
IIT Chicago-Kent 223 192 86.10 31 13.90 214 190 88.79 24 11.21 9 2 22.22 7 77.78
DePaul 236 202 85.59 34 14.41 226 197 87.17 29 12.83 10 5 50.00 5 50.00
Southern Illinois 83 69 83.13 14 16.87 75 65 86.67 10 13.33 8 4 50.00 4 50.00
U. of Illinois 119 99 83.19 20 16.81 115 98 85.22 17 14.78 4 1 25.00 3 75.00
John Marshall 300 228 76.00 72 24.00 260 220 84.62 40 15.38 40 8 20.00 32 80.00
Loyola 223 177 79.37 46 20.63 206 172 83.50 34 16.50 17 5 29.41 12 70.59
Northern Illinois 80 64 80.00 16 20.00 76 63 82.89 13 17.11 4 1 25.00 3 75.00
Illinois Students 1,479 1,234 83.43 245 16.57 1385 1206 87.08 179 12.92 94 28 29.79 66 70.21
Non-Illinois Students 919 706 76.82 213 23.18 818 675 82.52 143 17.48 101 31 30.69 70 69.31
Combined, Statewide 2,398 1,940 80.90 458 19.10 2,203 1,881 85.38 322 14.62 195 59 30.26 136 69.74

PASSING PERCENTAGE OF FIRST-TIME TEST-TAKERS, JULY TEST, 2005-2014
School 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 10 YEARS
FULL STATE 87.08 88.90 88.61 90.32 90.00 92.00 92.00 90.00 88.00 86.12 90.59
DePaul 87.17 89.04 88.21 93.90 90.09 92.96 92.27 90.65 88.50 84.28 89.65
IIT Chicago-Kent 88.79 93.33 95.43 96.90 94.66 96.05 96.34 93.97 90.39 86.77 93.27
Loyola 83.50 88.84 91.54 89.12 89.05 93.20 94.86 90.65 91.88 90.87 90.28
Northern Illinois 82.89 86.32 85.33 86.84 84.15 80.28 94.90 83.12 83.33 84.44 85.42
Northwestern 93.48 95.69 96.12 93.97 96.15 95.54 98.21 94.74 95.59 94.57 95.36
Southern Illinois 86.67 91.25 77.63 87.50 84.15 92.06 94.29 91.55 88.37 86.76 87.89
John Marshall 84.62 85.27 84.31 85.38 89.07 91.70 89.81 90.04 85.60 74.49 86.03
U. of Chicago 96.00 98.63 94.68 96.34 97.40 98.67 94.74 97.59 98.70 97.40 96.96
U. of Illinois 85.22 96.03 97.73 92.04 93.24 96.77 92.05 93.63 89.80 91.82 92.91

OVERALL PASSING PERCENTAGE, USA VS. ILLINOIS
Year TOTAL PASS FAIL PASS % ILLINOIS
2013 59,590 42,958 16,632 72.09 85.19
2012 59,405 42,408 16,997 71.39 84.86
2011 57,074 41,489 15,585 72.69 86.55
2010 57,017 41,531 15,486 72.84 87.00
2009 57,305 42,565 14,740 74.28 89.00
2008 56,596 43,204 13,392 76.34 88.00
2007 56,449 41,167 15,282 72.93 86.00
2006 57,671 40,955 16,716 71.01 82.10
2005 56,478 38,210 18,268 67.65 80.84

ABOUT THE DATA
2014 statistics reported by schools
2005-2013 Illinois statistics pulled from CDLB records via schools
National stats from National Conference of Bar Examiners

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