California Bar Exam Pass Rates Soar After Essay Leak

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Following the unprecedented release of essay topics just days before the July 2019 administration of the California bar exam, the results are finally out. Last summer, test-takers produced historically horrible results, the worst in nearly 70 years. How do this year’s results compare, and did the essay leak screw-up have any impact on the state’s pass rate? Dare we say, the results are actually pretty good — for California, that is.

According to a press release from the State Bar of California — which notes that “[t]he July 2019 pass rate rebound in California mirrors a national upward trend in scores” — the overall pass rate for the exam was 50.1 percent, while the pass rate for first-time takers was about 64 percent. In July 2018, the overall pass rate was 40.7 percent, while the pass rate for first-time takers was 55 percent. This means that California’s overall pass rate went up by 9.4 percentage points, and its pass rate for first-time takers also went up by 9 percentage points. Not only that, but the state’s mean scaled MBE score was 1428 (up 24 points since July 2018) compared with the national average of 1411 (up 16 8 points since July 2018). This means the essay leak had to have had an impact on these results, right? Right…? Come on, now.

Wrong. The State Bar produced not one, but two CYA reports on the July 2019 exam results, each concluding that the essay topic release had next to nothing to do with the increase in pass rates. Here’s some additional information from the State Bar:

The State Bar also released two reports on the results: the first, an analysis by the State Bar’s psychometrician, the Research Solutions Group (RSG), concluded that “[t]he results of the … analyses indicated that the premature release of the content had no statistically significant impact on the results of the July 2019 examination.”

In light of the special circumstances for the administration of this bar exam, the State Bar engaged a second firm, ACS Ventures, national experts in assessment and psychometric analysis, to review the analysis performed by RSG. Their report confirmed that the methods and procedures for scoring, scaling, and equating the bar exam were consistent with industry expectations and historical practice and confirmed  the validity of the methods used in the initial psychometric analysis.  ACS Ventures’ report concluded that  “the empirical evidence suggests that the early release of topics did not have a material impact on performance on the July 2019 California Bar Exam.”

Alan Steinbrecher, Board Chair of the State Bar, had this to say about the results:

The State Bar is committed to ensuring integrity and fairness in the admissions process. The State Bar did not take lightly the decision to release the essay and performance test topics to all test takers, and thus we are relieved by the findings of the psychometricians that statistical analysis demonstrated that the integrity of the examination was not impacted, that performance was as predicted based on historical data, and the passing rate was not affected.

Okay, fine, we totally believe you. The essay topic leak had nothing to do with this.

For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at the results for the last decade or so of summer administrations of the California bar exam. Check it out, below:

YearOverall Pass Rate
July 201950.1 percent passed
July 201840.7 percent passed
July 2017 (move to two-day test)49.6 percent passed
July 201643.07 percent passed
July 201546.6 percent passed
July 201448.6 percent passed
July 201355.8 percent passed
July 201255.3 percent passed
July 201154.8 percent passed
July 201054.8 percent passed
July 200956.4 percent passed
July 200861.7 percent passed

Here are some additional statistics that the State Bar of California released from this summer’s exam (pass rates rounded to whole numbers):

School Type



California ABA

71 percent

36 percent

Out-of-State ABA

73 percent

29 percent

California Accredited (but not ABA)

26 percent

14 percent

Unaccredited: Fixed-Facility

27 percent

9 percent

Unaccredited: Correspondence

20 percent

13 percent

Unaccredited Distance Learning

29 percent

12 percent

All Others

38 percent

22 percent

All Applicants

64 percent

26 percent

Even though pass rates went up across the board, graduates of ABA-accredited law schools still displayed an advantage over their peers who attended California-accredited or unaccredited law schools. Specifically, the pass rate for first-time takers from California’s ABA-accredited law schools increased by 7 percentage points, up from 64 percent last summer. Those who went to law schools accredited only by California and took the exam for the first time saw their pass rate increase by 10 percentage points, up from 16 percent last summer.

Whatever it was that caused the pass rate in California to climb this summer, we’ll remind readers that we’re still being forced to celebrate barely half of test-takers passing this exam. If the California Supreme Court had decided to lower the state bar’s cut score to bring it in line with that of the vast majority of other states (or hell, even if the state’s high court had decided to lower the cut score by just a point or two), imagine how many more people would have passed. For new lawyers, the legal profession in California is still in trouble, and this is something that needs to be fixed.

Congratulations if you managed to pass the bar exam in California this summer. If you didn’t pass, don’t despair. Many very successful people have failed the bar exam (see our list of famous bar exam failures). Focus on February and try to develop a plan for passing, and someday, you’ll conquer the beast that is the California bar exam.

State Bar of California Releases July 2019 Bar Exam Results [State Bar of California]

Staci ZaretskyStaci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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