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State law students see low passage rates on Feb. bar exam

April 16, 2009

by Marie Price
The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma law students who took the bar exam in February experienced one of the lowest passage rates in recent memory, a fact that has state law deans concerned. University of Oklahoma College of Law students scored highest, with a first-time passage rate of 93 percent, compared with 67 percent for students from the University of Tulsa College of Law and 44 percent for those from Oklahoma City University School of Law.

The schools’ overall passage rates were as follows: OU, 71 percent; TU, 63 percent; and OCU, 42 percent.

For all exam takers, including students from out-of-state law schools, the bar passage rate was 56 percent.

The next-lowest overall passage rates since February 1995 occurred in 2002 and 2003, which experienced rates of 65 percent and 62 percent, respectively.

OU law Dean Andrew Coats said he found the numbers disappointing.

“I think that’s the lowest passage rate I’ve ever seen, overall,” he said.

Relatively few students take the February bar exam, 110 this year. Most law school graduates sit for the July exam, with 339 taking it last year.

Last July, OU law grads achieved a 97-percent passage rate, both overall and for first-timers. TU’s July numbers were 90 percent overall, with 93 percent of first-time takers passing the exam. OCU law graduates experienced an overall passage rate of 90 percent in July, with 94 percent of first-timers passing. The overall passage rate for the state last July was 91 percent, 94 percent for students taking the bar for the first time.

Coats said some of OU’s repeat exam takers failed the bar several years ago and apparently took the exam this year without proper preparation.

“That accounted for our very poor showing on the repeat takers,” he said.

OU had seven exam repeaters, of whom two passed.

“They’ve been away doing other things and came back and took the bar again without doing the preparatory courses, which I can’t imagine,” Coats said. “That’s like playing Russian roulette with all the cylinders full.”

Overall, Coats said, it’s difficult to say whether the February group of law graduates gave below-average answers, “or if there is somehow a tightening of the grading on the bar exam.”

Although pleased that OU students scored highest, Coats said the 71-percent total passage rate for graduates is the lowest he’s seen in a long time.

“I don’t think we have been anywhere short of the mid-80s in a long time,” he said.

In February of last year, OU law grads scored an overall bar passage rate of 84 percent, with 86 percent of first-timers passing. TU graduates achieved an 89-percent passage rate, 93 percent for first-time exam takers. OCU law graduates scored an overall passage rate of 79 percent in February 2008, with 82 percent of first-timers passing.

For all students taking the February bar last year, the overall passage rate was 84 percent, 87 percent for first-timers, 72 percent for repeat exam takers.

Among Oklahoma’s three law schools, last February’s repeat bar-exam performance was as follows: OU, 80 percent; OCU, 60 percent and TU, 75 percent.

Usually, repeat bar-exam takers are in single digits for each school, although this year 10 of OCU’s 33 exam takers had previously failed the bar.

TU law Dean Janet Levit said she tends to be a “glass half-full, glass half-empty” kind of person.

“I think you can look at these results through both lenses,” she said.

Levit said she believes the 56-percent overall passage rate constitutes a historic Oklahoma low for bar passage.

However, she took note of Tulsa’s overall passage rate of 63 percent and the 67 percent achieved by first-time exam takers, both of which exceeded the state rate.

“I’m proud of that,” she said.

Levit said TU law grads also outperformed the national average on the multi-state part of the exam.

Levit said she would prefer that Tulsa’s passage rate was closer to what students achieved last July, as other deans probably do as well.

“We owe it to our students to have higher bar passage rates and we are certainly working on that,” she said. “It’s been a topic of my undivided attention for the past two weeks.”

All three Oklahoma law deans pointed out that given the low number of people who take the February bar, a bad result for just a few can substantially sway the results.

Levit said officials visited with all TU law students who sat for the bar exam, and gained some productive feedback.

“They were highly complimentary of the way that our professors responded to their inquiries, either over the phone, in person or in e-mail, about questions that they had during the bar study process,” she said.

Levit said students voiced some criticism of commercial bar-review courses, which TU took directly to the companies that produce those materials.

“I’ve also requested to meet with the Board of Bar Examiners,” she said.

Levit said scheduling conflicts may delay that meeting for several months.

“I think it’s very interesting and should be a concern of deans and the Board of Bar Examiners and the Supreme Court to have such a high rate in July followed by such a low rate in February,” she said. “I just would like to have some dialog and discussion about what we can do better to reverse those swings.”

Levit said each essay question on the February exam has been analyzed, and high percentages of students from both TU and OU failed on a couple of them.

 She said that 75 percent of TU first-timers and 79 percent of those from OU failed a particular property question, with 50 percent of those from TU and 56 percent of OU grads failing a certain civil procedure question.

“You have to ask yourself, when you see those types of numbers, was it a harder test? Were some of the questions quirky?” Levit said.

The TU dean said she hasn’t yet tried to address those particular essay questions herself, and therefore doesn’t know whether they were more difficult or otherwise problematic.

“I’ve passed this bar exam on to all of our faculty,” Levit said.

She said at least a couple of professors are thinking about making changes in the final exams for their current courses, to try to track a bit more closely with how the bar exam might be framed.

“But I think we do a pretty good job in our core curriculum of teaching our students the core concepts that are going to be tested on the bar, and in many cases having our exams mirror the bar exam,” Levit said.

Law Dean Lawrence Hellman said OCU officials are concerned about their graduates’ results, which are in stark contrast to those achieved by first-time takers over the last four exams.

“We have not changed our academic program, and the quality of our student body has not changed,” he said.  “We have not been advised of any changes to the bar exam or the expectations of the Board of Bar Examiners.  So we are seeking to discover what could explain such a sudden and significant swing in the results.”

Hellman said that inquiry continues.

“So far, we have determined that 87 percent of our February exam takers who took advantage of the voluntary bar preparation program we offer passed, while only 28 percent of those who did not take advantage of our program passed.”

Hellman said law school officials have notified students of the disparity in results and will continue to encourage greater participation in the school’s preparation program.