Bar exam scores keep rolling in, nearly all lower than last year

The top of the cap of a graduating student is pictured during their graduation ceremony at UC San Diego in San Diego
REUTERS/Mike Blake
  • Only two states have reported year-over-year increases for the July exam so far
  • Maine's pass rate dropped by 27 percentage points
  • Florida saw slight dip

(Reuters) - More states have released results from the July 2021 bar exam, with few bright spots in the numbers.

Pass rates are down in all but two of the 19 jurisdictions that have reported results thus far, and 10 of those states posted double-digit declines. Maine has notched the largest drop— its pass rate fell 27 percentage points to 59% compared to last year. West Virginia’s pass rate fell nearly 20 percentage points to 58%, while the pass rate in New Mexico fell 18 percentage points 71%.

South Dakota and Utah are alone so far in reporting pass rate increases. Utah’s 86% pass rate is 17 percentage points higher than last year. (Only 59 people sat for the state’s bar exam in 2020, in part because it offered a temporary diploma privilege that allowed recent graduates to become licensed without taking the bar.) And South Dakota’s pass rate ticked up 3 percentage points to 73%.

Most of the states that have already reported results are relatively small. Florida is the only large bar exam jurisdiction to release its July 2021 results thus far. It traditionally has the fourth-highest number of examinees. Among first-time test takers, Florida’s pass rate ticked down just 0.1 percentage point to 71.6%.

Nationwide, the average score on the Multistate Bar Exam, which is the 200-multiple-choice-question portion of the test, fell to 140.4, the National Conference of Bar Examiners announced last week. That’s a decrease of 0.7 from July 2019, which is the last time a national cohort of examinees took the same test.

Some states gave an in-person, full length bar exam in July 2020, while others gave an in-person test in September. Many more opted for a shortened, online exam in October. Florida was among the handful of jurisdictions that administered their own online tests throughout the summer and fall of 2020. In July 2021, 29 jurisdictions opted for a full-length, online bar exam, while 24 gave an in-person exam.

BARBRI President Mike Sims said in an email message that the July 2019 bar exam is the best point of comparison for the July 2021 results—even though the most recent exam was given online and the July 2019 was administered in person.

“The 2020 bar exam had many fewer MBE takers and was offered under very stressful circumstances,” Sims wrote. “I believe COVID related stress and worry about online exams contributed to the 0.7-point decline in 2021 compared to 2019.”

Sims predicted that the average MBE score will rise next year if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and things “return to something resembling normal.”

Legal academics have posited that learning loss from taking online or hybrid classes for more than a year, COVID-19 related fatigue, and technical issues with the online bar exam may have contributed to pass rate declines on the most recent test.

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misreported the overall pass rate on Florida's July 2021 bar exam. It was 60.5%.)

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