May 2015 • Volume 103 • Number 5 • Page 10
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The Illinois bar exam gets tougher
Illinois bar examiners are raising the passing score - but not as much as originally planned.
While licensed Illinois attorneys no longer have to worry about passing the bar exam, future exam takers will face a tougher passing score, also known as the "cut score." Fortunately for them, it isn't as tough as the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar originally intended.
On March 27, 2015, the board announced the revised schedule for and modified changes to the passing score increases. The announcement represents the culmination of a discussion between the board, Illinois law school deans, and the Illinois Supreme Court.
'A solemn, serious act'
The Board has not raised the bar exam's passing score since 1994, when it was increased to 264 out of a possible score of 400. After evaluating average scores across both the multiple choice and written portions of the exam, the Board found that an increase in the passing score was necessary.
Regina Kwan Peterson, the Board's director of administration, compares the recalibration of the passing score to the recentering of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which had remained unchanged since 1941. "These sorts of things don't happen often," she says.
The Board saw a need to revisit the passing score as the average score on the exam's multiple choice portion crept upwards. According to Peterson, the average score on the multiple choice portion peaked at 148. However, the minimum passing score of 264 was based on an average score of 132 on the multiple choice portion of the exam. It was possible that an average exam-taker could score 116 on the written portion and still pass. The result was that some exam-takers were passing the bar exam with "unacceptably low" writing scores by excelling at the multiple choice portion of the exam.
There are no minimum scores for either portion of the exam. This compensatory scoring system requires balancing to prevent unintended results, Peterson notes. The Board determined that raising the minimum passing score would have the effect of "bringing up the overall writing score without setting a minimum score for the section," Peterson says.
She also observes that Illinois's passing score was relatively low compared to other states. It is now closer to the national average.
More importantly, the Board considered the cut score from "a global standpoint," says Peterson. The Board has a duty to protect the public from unqualified attorneys and a responsibility to the court to ensure that attorneys are qualified to practice, she explains. "Raising cut scores does not make you a popular person. The Board does this as a solemn, serious act. Seven lawyers in the entire state are asked to do this task," Peterson points out.
The deans weigh in
The Board's original recommendation to the Illinois Supreme Court was that the cut score be increased by eight points. In July 2015, the score was to increase to 268, arriving at 272 in July 2016. The deans of several law schools in the state objected to the increases. "They had a number of concerns," says Peterson, and "were not monolithic in their disagreement."
A main sticking point for the deans was whether the board's evidence of unacceptable writing from exam passers was anecdotal. Peterson believes that the Board's evidence was more empirical. She notes that the Board did not have an agenda - it looked at data from past tests, spoke with long-term exam graders, and made a determination that the cut score needed to be increased.
However, after several meetings between the Board and the deans, the two sides still had trouble agreeing. The Illinois Supreme Court stepped in to facilitate a compromise. The Board submitted examples of unacceptable writing from exam passers to the deans and the court. The process "resulted in everyone understanding why things are the way they are."
Peterson says the Board's concern was whether its "formula for testing competency" is a good one. "Should someone who writes poorly go through? Are too many people who cannot communicate well getting through?" Is the test ensuring that licensed attorneys possess the minimum competency to practice law?
Peterson notes that since the discussions began, "the average multiple choice score has gone down and so has the pass rate." However, the Board still recognized a need to adjust the cut score.
The Board's March 27 announcement describes the compromise the court approved. In July 2015, the minimum passing score will be raised to 266. Instead of the next increase taking effect in 2016, the new schedule increases the score for the July 2017 exam to 268.
The July 2017 increase is currently provisional - the deans and the Board will review the results of the July 2015 exam and make further recommendations to the court. The Board will also appoint a dean of an Illinois law school to serve as an ex officio member of the Board to give the deans a formal seat at the table.