UPDATED: California Prepares to Potentially Lower Its Bar Exam Pass Score

August 2, 2017

The California State Bar recently released the results of a study on the state bar exam’s current cut score, or pass line. The study, which was accelerated in order to possibly apply a new score to the July 2017 exam, suggests two possible options for addressing concerns that the exam may be too hard:

  1. Leave the pass line at its current score of 1440 (144 on the 200-point scale), or
  2. Set an interim pass line of 1414 (141.4 on the 200-point scale).

The Committee of Bar Examiners and the Board of Trustees’ Admissions and Education Committee voted to adopt the study and to collect public comments on both options until August 25.

The public comment period will also include two public hearings, after which the Committee of Bar Examiners will consider the comments and submit a final recommendation to the Board of Trustees. That recommendation will be on the agenda for the Board of Trustees’ September 6-7 meeting, and then the Board will submit their final proposal to the California Supreme Court. The court will decide if it will change the pass line and when that change would go into effect. The results of the July exam typically come out in November, so there would be time for the court to apply the new pass line to the July 2017 test if they so choose.

The pass line study is one of four the California State Bar has undertaken in 2017 to fully analyze the state’s bar exam and prepare recommendations for the supreme court to consider. California’s bar exam is known in the legal community as one of the toughest in the nation, with only 62 percent of first-time test takers passing last year (for comparison, New York’s passage rate was in the low 80s, similar to other states’ rates). The latest push for change began in February when 20 deans at ABA-accredited law schools asked the state supreme court to lower the passing score. The California legislature then began to study the matter, followed by supreme court amendments adopted on June 21 where the court asserted its responsibility over the exam.

Proponents for the change argue that the current passing score is too high and keeps out too many well-qualified attorneys. They say a lower score could bring the state's passage rates more in line with other states while still ensuring new attorneys are prepared for practice. On the other side of the debate, some say the standard is intentionally set high to protect the public from unprepared attorneys.

Update: In October 2017, the California Supreme Court decided that the cut score for the California Bar Exam would remain at 1440. The Court noted that the more recent decline in the state bar exam's passage rate is consistent with national patterns, and that it would consider "any appropriate recommendation" on this issue in the next review cycle, "or sooner if the court so directs."

Heather Buchanan is a second-year law student at the University of Colorado Law School and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to iaals@du.edu.