SAN FRANCISCO —Becoming a lawyer in California isn’t going to get easier after the state Supreme Court decided not to lower the minimum passing score on one of nation’s toughest licensing exams for attorneys.
The justices on Wednesday acknowledged a drop in the percentage of people passing the test but said further study was needed to determine what might be behind the trend.
“Examination of these matters could shed light on whether potential improvements in law school admission, education and graduation standards and in State Bar testing for licensure … could raise bar exam pass rates,” the justices said.
The court in February ordered the State Bar of California to review whether the passing score was appropriate for evaluating the minimum competence of prospective attorneys. The move came after law school deans said in a letter to the court that California’s high score unfairly penalizes students who would have become lawyers in other states.
California’s minimum score of 144 is the second highest in the country. The passage rate on the July test fell from nearly 62 percent in 2008 to 43 percent in 2016, mirroring a national trend that has alarmed law school administrators and officials responsible for licensing attorneys.
Oregon and Nevada lowered their passing scores this year amid a similar decline.
Some experts have said it’s not the exam that is to blame, but the caliber of students. They say a dip in law school applications has forced institutions to accept applicants who have not done as well academically.
The State Bar of California last month gave the Supreme Court three options for the passing score. One recommendation called for reducing the minimum score on an interim basis to a little over 141. A second called for a lower passing score of 139. The third option was to leave the score as is.
Modeling forecasts suggested the 141 score would have boosted the July 2016 pass rate by 8 percent, state bar officials said.
In a statement, State Bar President Michael Colantuono thanked the court for “providing swift guidance” on the passing score.