A significant decline in bar exam passage rates among University of Montana School of Law students is leaving administrators anxious. For decades, UM has graduated law students who go on to pass the Montana State Bar Exam at a rate of between 87 and 94 percent. In July, however, one year after the state adopted a new standardized test called the Uniform Bar Exam, the school’s passage rate plummeted to 64 percent.
“When recruits are looking at the school, one of the first things they want to know is, ‘How’s your bar passage rate?’” says Interim Law School Dean Greg Munro. “We are very worried about what this will do to recruiting.”
The drop also impacts students who, after paying for three years of tuition and potentially thousands on a test preparation course, plus $300 to take the bar, still aren’t credentialed.
“Some of those people had their jobs already,” Munro says. “So there’s some question whether they can hang onto the job when they haven’t passed the bar exam.”
In an effort to figure out why scores dropped, Munro evaluated the academic records of July test takers, scrutinizing their grade point averages and law school admission test scores compared to students who took the exam in years past. He found little change, prompting questions about the newly introduced bar exam’s integrity.
“It looks to me like the exam regimen being used as the UBE is probably unreliable,” Munro says.
Before the Montana Supreme Court authorized adoption of the UBE, supporters said it would make it easier for attorneys to practice in multiple jurisdictions. Rather than taking the Montana bar and also one in North Dakota, for example, the one standardized test credentials attorneys to practice in both states. Since 2011, 14 states, including Alaska, Alabama and North Dakota, have adopted the UBE.
University of North Dakota Law School Dean Kathryn Rand says bar passage rates at her school dropped from 76 percent in 2013 to 56 percent in 2014. Like Munro, Rand’s been unable to pinpoint any significant changes to her admission protocol or curriculum. “We didn’t see anything there that would explain this kind of dip,” she says.
The nonprofit National Conference of Bar Examiners prepares and coordinates the UBE. In response to questions about the test’s integrity, NCBE President Erica Moeser says though the organization is seeing a national drop in July’s mean bar score, “we’re satisfied that the scoring was done properly.”