Kentucky joined a number of other states with disappointing results from this summer’s bar exams, as only 65 percent of those taking the state exam passed in July. The total pass rate of 69.9 percent from all winter and summer exams in 2016 marked a low point for Kentucky in the past decade, falling over 10 percentage points from its previous high in 2011.
The fall in pass rates over the last five years among first-time bar exam takers in Kentucky was even larger, with this year’s rate at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law and University of Kentucky College of Law decreasing by nearly 20 and 15 percentage points from their previous high marks in 2011, respectively.
This decline in pass rates is not unique to Kentucky or its law school graduates, as other states have witnessed the same type of decline in this period and now are searching for answers as to why it is happening and how it can be corrected.
The pass rate for first-time takers of the Kentucky bar exam was 86.3 percent in 2011, but has fallen each year since and reached 74.3 percent in 2016. UK’s law school graduates taking this exam for the first time in 2016 passed at a rate of 79.3 percent, which was only a slight decrease from the previous year, but nearly 15 percentage points lower than its 94.8 pass rate in 2011. UofL’s Brandeis graduates taking the exam for the first time this year passed at a rate of 71.2 percent — which is below the state average and a drop of 13.6 percentage points from 2015 and 19.5 points since 2011.
Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law has far fewer graduates who take the Kentucky bar exam — many choose to take the Ohio bar exam — but their first-time takers passed at a rate of 79.6 percent in 2016, which was the highest in the state and a slight increase from 2011.
While not every state has released final bar exam results from this summer, most that have released their results saw a similar decline in pass rates in 2016, continuing a downward trend in recent years. Indiana has had one of the steepest declines, as the overall pass rate from July was just 61 percent — well below its 74 percent pass rate last year.
These declining pass rates around the country have been accompanied by a drop in the mean Bar Exam Score, which is derived from a standard multiple choice section from exams in each state. The mean score of July exams slightly increased nationally to 140.3 in 2016, but is still the second-lowest recorded since 1988 and is over five points lower than what it was in 2008.
UofL Brandeis School of Law Dean Susan Duncan told IL in a statement that she is disappointed with their graduates’ pass rates this summer, “which reflect the lowered average scores seen in Kentucky and states across the country.” She added that early reports are positive for Brandeis graduates taking the bar exam in other states and they have a 100 percent passage rate in Indiana and Utah.
“We are proud of the great work our graduates have done during law school and share in the frustration of those who did not pass the bar exam,” stated Duncan. “We have reached out to all graduates who did not pass the exam and have offered assistance to those who would like to take the exam again when it is offered in February.”
Duncan added that the faculty and administration at Brandeis “remain committed to our mission of providing an excellent legal education to our students and setting them up for successful careers. We will spend the following months reviewing ways to ensure that our curriculum thoroughly prepares students for the rigors of the bar exam.”
Asked why pass rates have decreased so dramatically of late, Duncan stated they “do not know why this year’s passage rate has gone down, but we are analyzing a number of factors, including LSAT scores and commercial bar prep courses, to determine if we can identify any trends.”
Some commentators have blamed the falling bar exam pass rates and scores around the country on law schools increasingly lowering their admissions standards, arguing that this is the inevitable outcome of pushing unprepared students into the field.
The median LSAT score of incoming Brandeis students has remained relatively stable in recent years, decreasing slightly from 156 in 2011 to 154 in 2015, with UK’s decreasing four points to 155 over that time. The median GPA of incoming students at Brandeis has decreased slightly from 3.42 to 3.39 in the same period, with UK’s falling from 3.57 to 3.42.
One statistic that has dramatically changed in recent years at both UofL and UK is the percentage of applicants who are offered admission to their law schools. In 2011, 31.2 percent of Brandeis applicants and 40.9 of UK law school applications were offered admission, but those numbers had both flipped upside down by last year. The acceptance rate leaped to 68.2 percent at Brandeis in 2015, with UK’s also increasing significantly to 60.2 percent.