First-timers improve, but February bar passage hits record low

The troubled relationship that would-be lawyers have with the Indiana Bar Exam continues as the preliminary 47 percent overall passage rate from February 2018 is the lowest on record.

However, Cathleen Shrader, president of the Indiana Board of Law Examiners, pointed to the good news — the slight uptick in the performance of first-time test takers since the February 2016 exam. In addition, the quality of the students’ answers and essays has been improving as well.

“We’re disappointed when anybody fails the bar exam,” Shrader said. “But we certainly are excited to see the trend of improvement continue for the third year in a row.”

The February 2018 overall passage rate is preliminary and could go up after the appeals process. In February 2017, the preliminary overall passage rate was 48 percent but then climbed to 52 percent after the regrading of some exams.

For first-time takers, the passage rate has been inching upward since February 2016, when 64 percent were successful. The rate improved to 66 percent in February 2017 and is currently at 67 percent, which could rise when scores become final.

Although the rise is encouraging, it is still far from the 77 percent and 76 percent first-time passage rates in the February 2014 and 2015 bars, respectively.

Shrader noted the better passage rates correlates to higher LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point averages of the students now entering law schools. During the Great Recession when applications dropped, many law schools enrolled students whose LSAT and GPA numbers indicated they would have trouble completing the J.D. degree and passing the bar.

For repeat takers, the passage rate is not following any trend. Repeat takers passed at a rate of 40 percent in February 2016 and improved to 42 percent in February 2017. But they have fallen to a historic low of 26 percent in February 2018.

Comparatively, the pass rate for repeat takers was 38 percent in February 2014 then jumped to 54 percent in February 2015.

In 2017, the Indiana Bar Examination Assessment Task Force linked the decline in the bar passage rate to the format of the exam. The task force did an 18-month study of the Indiana Bar Exam and raised concerns about the multiple-choice Multistate Bar Exam portion of the test and the grading system.

John Maley, partner at Barnes & Thornburg, was co-chair of the task force. He cautioned against reading too much into the February 2018 results, especially since the passage rate of first-time takers ticked up while the repeat takers slumped.

“These statistics might improve somewhat after the appeals process is completed, and comparisons to prior years can then be more accurately made,” Maley wrote in an email. “Nonetheless the historically lower pass rates since adoption in 2001 of the multistate bar exam as a component of Indiana’s exam remain a concern.”

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