For two-plus years, law school deans have sparred with the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar over proposals to make the state’s bar exam harder to pass.
In the end, only 16 bar exam takers — less than 1 percent of the total — were caught in the middle.
That’s how many people failed the bar exam under this year’s minimum passing score, 266, but who would have passed under last year’s cut score of 264, according to Regina Kwan Peterson, IBAB’s director of administration.
Ten of the affected test-takers attended Illinois law schools while six attended out-of-state schools.
The names of the students and their schools were not released.
Last year, the pass rate for all takers was 80.9 percent. It fell this year to 75.5 percent. It would have been 76.2 percent under last year’s cut score. The increased cut score was expected to impact 2 to 3 percent of takers, Peterson said.
“There was probably a perception among some people that raising the cut score was going to be more significant,” Peterson said.
Bar exam pass rates have become the latest flash point for criticism of law schools after a report last month predicted rates would continue to fall as schools admit students with weaker credentials in response to a shrinking applicant pool.
Following a national trend, Illinois bar exam rates have fallen by 13.5 percentage points since 2009, when 89 percent passed. The national average on the multistate bar examination this July was 139.9, down from 144.5 in 2009. It was also the lowest since 1988, Bloomberg Business reported.
The IBAB originally proposed an eight-point increase in the cut score, which law deans said would have led to as much as a 10 percent decline in bar passage rates. After discussions with the deans, that number was trimmed to four points.
Ultimately, the two sides settled on a scaled four-point increase, with a two-point rise this year and another tentatively scheduled for 2017.
“It may be that the minimum passing score will go up in 2017, but it’s only going to be after a joint recommendation and review between (the IBAB) and the deans,” Peterson said.
The reason for the cut score increase was attributed to IBAB concerns over the quality of new lawyers’ writing skills. Increasing the score was meant to weed out those who performed poorly on the writing section, Peterson said.
Loyola University Chicago School of Law Dean David N. Yellen said Illinois’ law deans disagreed with the IBAB over the decline in graduates’ writing ability, but said he was “pleasantly surprised” that only 16 people were affected by the increase.
“I’m glad the impact was as small as it was,” he said. “I still think of the 16 people who failed who would have otherwise passed and I think it’s really unfortunate. I don’t think they should have failed.”
He said he opposes raising the score again in 2017.
Independent of that cut, Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency said he expects Illinois’ bar passage rates to continue to fall.
Law School Transparency issued a report last month that listed 74 schools having a “high risk” of graduating a large portion of students who will struggle to pass the bar exam. At those schools, the 25th percentile of incoming students scored below 150 on the Law School Admissions Test.
McEntee said there were three Illinois law schools with a “high risk” rating based on their first-year cohorts from 2012. Those students would have taken the bar exam this year. Since 2012, Illinois added a fourth “high risk” school and LSAT scores at the three “high-risk” schools have continued to fall.
“The fall from 2013 to 2015 in bar passage numbers was pretty pronounced,” McEntee said. “But it’s only going to be worse over the next two years.”
Loyola’s Yellen did not dispute McEntee’s analysis of the law school market.
“A number of schools are now enrolling a higher number of people at that level (of LSAT) because of the lower number of applicants and it’s not at all surprising that there are lower bar passage rates,” he said. “There is a correlation and it’s a concerning one.”
But he said that should not factor into the debate over whether the bar exam cut score should continue to rise.
“The passing score only should be increased if there is evidence that the current passing score is inadequate in ensuring new lawyer competence,” he said.