Indiana Supreme Court calls for review of bar exam

Amid slumping passage rates, the Indiana Supreme Court has created a special commission to review the state’s bar exam and make recommendations for changes in format or content, including whether to modify what is considered a passing score.

The Study Commission on the Future of the Indiana Bar Examination will be chaired by retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard. Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik will serve as vice chair.

In an order issued Tuesday, the Supreme Court noted the decision to form the commission was driven by Indiana’s falling bar passage rates.

Comparatively, the overall pass rate for the July exam fell from 82 percent in 2008 to 65 percent in 2018. The Supreme Court noted Indiana is not alone in seeing a drop in the number of students passing, but it described the declines as “significant, and, in some cases, unprecedented.” 

“We find that these recent developments warrant an in-depth analysis of the Indiana bar examination to determine whether changes in the format or content of the examination should be made,” the order stated.

The commission has been directed to provide a written report with recommendations to the court no later than Dec. 1, 2019.

Along with evaluating whether Indiana should modify the passing score, the commission has been charged with looking at how the different components of the bar exam — the Indiana Essay Examination, the Multistate Performance Test and the Multistate Bar Examination — are graded and scaled. In addition, the group will consider whether changes should be made to the number of subjects tested in the essay portion of the bar exam and to the appeals process for applicants who fail the exam.

The commission’s agenda reflects the issues studied by the Indiana Bar Examination Assessment Task Force, formed by the Indianapolis Bar Association in 2015.

In its 2017 report, the task force highlighted its concerns about the multiple-choice format of the Multistate Bar Exam, the grading system used by the National Conference of Bar Examiners for certain portions of the exam, and the disparate impact the MBE has on minority groups.   

Recommendations from the task force included keeping the essay questions and Multistate Performance component but reducing the weight of the MBE from 50 percent to 35 percent. The group also advocated for a return to the borderline review process where failing exams that were within a few points of passing were automatically re-evaluated.   

John Maley, partner at Barnes & Thornburg, co-chaired the task force with Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. He has been appointed to the Supreme Court’s new commission.  

Other members of the commission include lawyers and judges from around the Indiana. The press release states that all Indiana law school deans are members of the commission. However, missing from the list is Valparaiso Law School interim dean David Cleveland. There was no explanation as to why no one from Valparaiso Law School was included. The law school has announced it will close in 2020.

Shepard, who will lead the work of the commission, comes with strong credentials in legal education. He has served as chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which oversees the accreditation of about 200 law schools in the U.S., and in 2012-2013, he chaired the ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.

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