David N. Yellen
David N. Yellen
Harold J. Krent
Harold J. Krent

Passing the Illinois bar exam is getting harder — but not as hard as previously announced.

In December, after two years of debate with several Illinois law deans, the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar decided that the score needed to pass the exam — known as the cut score — would increase four points for the July 2015 test and an additional four points for the July 2016 test.

That would raise the cut score from 264 to 272.

Law deans objected, and on March 16, Deans Harold J. Krent of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and David N. Yellen of Loyola University Chicago School of Law met with members of the bar admissions board and six Illinois Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Rita B. Garman.

Now, the cut score will rise only two points this year and another two points for July 2017, bringing the score to 268.

“I’m glad that there was common ground,” Krent said. “I think the court showed great willingness to listen to the deans prior to any other changes being made.”

In November, the two sides were far from agreement. At the time, the proposed cut score increase was eight points in one year, rising to 272 in July 2015.

As a result, the board predicted the state’s passing rate would decrease 10 percent. That would be an especially steep drop since takers of the test in July passed at an 80.9 percent rate, down 4.3 percentage points from 2013.

The board’s reasoning for the cut score increase was to improve performance on the test’s writing half, which is weighed evenly with the multiple choice half. No minimum score is required on either individual part.

In July, the average multiple choice score for Illinois test-takers was 147. A person who reached that number could score a 117 on the writing — “an unacceptably low score,” Regina Kwan Peterson, the board’s director of administration, said in November — and still pass the bar.

By raising the overall score to 272 without implementing a required score on either portion, test-takers scoring 147 on the multiple choice would have to reach 125 on the writing part.

The deans’ primary substantive objection was that the board had not provided, as Krent called it, a “compelling” reason for the increase.

To hear those objections, the board met in December with Krent, Yellen, Dean John E. Corkery of The John Marshall Law School, Dean Jennifer L. Rosato Perea of Northern Illinois University College of Law and interim Dean Bruce L. Ottley of DePaul University College of Law, with Dean Cynthia Fountaine of Southern Illinois University College of Law joining via conference call.

After that meeting, the board announced the eight-point increase would occur over two years rather than one.

Now, after a day of meetings among the two deans, the six justices and members of the board, that increase has been tempered further.

“I am happy with the court’s decision,” Yellen said in an e-mail. “Even though I still believe that there is no need for any score increase, this new plan will have less impact on our students.”

While the board doesn’t have a hard estimate of the score increase’s effect on exam passing rates, it anticipates the impact will be small, Peterson said.

In a statement today, the board announced that, in continued efforts to “establish a formal tie” between the two sides, the high court will appoint a dean as an ex-officio board member on July 1.