What does it tell you when the scores American students are achieving on multiple-choice tests are declining, and hitting the lowest levels in more than 30 years? For once, we’re not talking about primary or even secondary school education, and lamenting how Americans are lagging behind students from other countries.
No, I’m talking about how would-be American lawyers are doing on the multistate bar exam, a 200-question multiple choice test given in Ohio and most other states as part of the bar examination tests that law school graduates must pass to become licensed to practice law. The scores of bar exam takers on the multistate are falling. In 2015, the mean scaled score was 135, which is the lowest average result since 1983. When the average score of more than 20,000 test-takers involves answering less than 70 percent of the 200 questions correctly, that’s pretty sad.
So, to put the question again: what does it tell you when scores on a multiple-choice test are falling? It tells you that either the quality of students taking the test is declining, or those students are less prepared, or the test itself is getting harder. Although it’s possible the exam itself has unintentionally gotten tougher, most people are pointing at the first two choices as the likely suspects. They note that the standardized test scores of students being admitted to law schools is declining, which they think indicates that the intellectual caliber of the students themselves is lower than it once was. And there is an ongoing debate about how well law school is preparing students these days, and whether law school students are more focusing on tackling an academically rigorous curriculum or on other social justice type issues that aren’t going to prepare them to pass the bar exam.
I also think the declining trend in bar exam performance speaks to the quality of the students and the quality of the legal education they’re receiving. It’s not that people are getting dumber, it’s that smart people who might have gone to law school years ago are self-selecting out of law school these days. That’s why law school enrollment figures have been declining for years. Forgoing law school is a wise decision for many people, because while the costs of going to law school continue to increase — at many schools, it’s more than $50,000 a year — the employment statistics for recent grads are horrendous. If you were an intelligent, reasonably motivated young person, would you want to commit to a three-year course of study where you’re likely going to graduate with a six-figure student loan debt and crappy job prospects?
And law schools themselves seem to have changed and morphed from tough, intellectually demanding centers of higher learning into more politicized venues. With professors seemingly more focused on their own political agendas than on challenging students to learn and excel at traditional forms of legal analysis, it’s no wonder that recent graduates are struggling on multiple-choice tests.
Don’t be surprised if you start to see more reports in the news about some law schools closing their doors.