US bar exam officials blame low scores on COVID disruptions, repeat testers

Students attend secondary school exams under COVID-19 restrictions in Berlin
REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
  • The average Multistate Bar Exam score for February fell 1.4 points
  • Many examinees were in their first year of law school when COVID hit

(Reuters) - Scores on the February bar exam have fallen for the second straight year, examinations officials said Friday, placing some of the blame on the COVID-19 pandemic’s U.S. law school disruptions.

The national average score on the Multistate Bar Exam — the 200 question multiple-choice portion of the attorney licensing test — was 131.1, a decrease of 1.5 points from the previous year, the National Conference of Bar Examiners said.

Scores have declined 3 points since 2021, when the February average MBE score was 134.

Rosemary Reshetar, the national conference’s assessment and research director, attributed the latest decline both to an increase in repeat test takers and to the pandemic’s negative impact on learning.

First-time test takers saw the biggest decline on the February MBE exam, scoring two points lower than their 2022 counterparts on average, she noted. Many of February’s first-time examinees were in their first year of law school when campuses shut down and classes abruptly moved online in the spring of 2020.

Surveys of law students and research on undergraduates show that education was severely disrupted by those changes, Reshetar said in announcing the latest exam results.

“Law school typically takes three years to complete, and many bar exam-tested topics are taught in the first year of law schools’ curricula,” she said, suggesting this cohort of test takers may have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s impact.

The February version of the twice-yearly test traditionally draws a larger proportion of takers who have already failed the exam at least once and who are statistically more likely to fail again than first-time takers. About 72% of the February 2023 takers were likely repeaters, the national conference said, up from 68% the previous year.

(NOTE: This story was updated to clarify that first-time bar examinees in February 2023 saw the largest average MBE score decline among test takers.)

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Reporting by Karen Sloan

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at