For the second year in a row, the percentage of people who successfully took the summer California bar exam fell to a historic low, with less than 47% passing, according to state statistics. Last year, only 48.6% of those who took the exam made the grade, the first time the passage rate dipped below half in nearly a decade.
California's decrease is small compared with other states'.
Oklahoma's bar passage rate fell by 11 points to 68%, and New Mexico's decreased by 12 percentage points to 72%. The bar is offered twice a year, but traditionally more people take the summer exam.
In California, nearly 8,300 law school alums took this year's July exam; about 4,700 took the February test.
Several experts said that California makes it harder to pass the bar exam than other states.
The downturn comes as law schools have been struggling to attract students. One recent study found that more campuses have been accepting incoming classes with larger numbers of students with poor LSAT scores. Eight out of California's 21 nationally accredited law schools recently admitted classes that have a "high," "very high" or "extreme" number of prospective attorneys who have a poor chance of passing the bar based on their LSAT scores, according to the study by Law School Transparency, an advocacy group.
LSAT scores are a key predictor of bar performance, according to research, although some school administrators say performance on the 180-point standardized test isn't a sign of future success.
At the same time, many alumni are unable to find jobs in the legal profession after graduation, administrators say. As a result, some schools, including Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and UC Hastings have cut class size to try to maintain quality.
"Given declining predictors, even with shrinking classes, we might continue to see pass rates drop in California even further," said Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University who writes on the business of law.
The state has not released data for individual schools yet, so it is unclear whether different campuses improved. But the percentage of alumni from nationally accredited schools such as USC and UCLA who took the bar for the first time in July and passed increased by nearly 7% over the year before, according to state bar statistics.
It's unclear if the percentage of students from law schools that are overseen but not accredited by the State Bar of California increased. Historically, alumni of those schools pass the bar about a fifth of the time. A recent Times investigation found that nearly 90% of students at those schools drop out before even taking the bar.
There are also about 20 schools in California that are accredited by the state bar but not by a national group.
Muller and other legal experts say that fewer people pass the California exam because many students need to score higher on a portion of the test to pass overall. In California, as in all other states, bar takers have to finish the Multistate Bar Examination, a 200-question multiple choice test that is administered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
The mean score for California bar takers was 142.2 this year, about 2.5 points higher than the national average and higher than many states including Pennsylvania and Tennessee, according to Muller. About 71% of Pennsylvania bar takers passed the July bar and about 65% passed it in Tennessee.
"California's high cut score means that many test-takers who would pass the bar in another jurisdiction fail the California bar," Muller wrote on his blog, Excess of Democracy.
Kyle McEntee, the executive director of Law School Transparency, said that the California exam has always had high standards and schools need to do a better job of educating students.
"Schools are going to have to pour more resources into remediation. They're going to have to reexamine their retention policies and see if they should keep certain students in school," he said.