EDITORIAL: California may water down standards for the state bar exam

And the dumbing down continues.

Nevada and California attorneys have long taken pride in the fact that, in order to practice their profession, they successfully navigated tough bar exams with high cut scores.

But failure rates have increased in recent years. Rather than urge would-be lawyers to study longer and harder, however, both states have responded in today’s typical fashion: by watering down the standards.

In June, Nevada lowered the bar exam passing score from 140 to 138. Now, California proposes to follow suit by knocking down that state’s 2017 cut score from 144 to 141.

The move comes amid concerns that just 43 percent of California test-takers in 2016 reached the required score, the lowest rate in the nation. That’s down from 62 percent in 2008. In Nevada, 63 percent of first-timers hit the number in 2016, down from 81 percent in 2011.

Of course, arbitrarily fiddling with the cut line doesn’t address the real issues. Law schools across the country — particularly of the marginal persuasion — are struggling to attract quality applicants and to place graduates in a shrinking number of legal jobs. Does this reflect the pathologies of the nation’s K-12 educational system and a dwindling pool of high-achieving students?

And what about the law schools themselves? Faced with fewer and fewer applications, many are no doubt relaxing their admission standards to stay solvent. That could also help explain the rising failure rates on bar exams.

Nevada has just one law school — UNLV’s Boyd School of Law. But the Wall Street Journal reported in 2016 that California is home to more than a dozen law schools that aren’t approved by the American Bar Association but receive accreditation from the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California. “The rock-bottom numbers coming out of some of these schools is astounding,” the paper concluded, citing one such law school whose graduates went 0-26 on the 2016 bar exam.

Indeed, The Associated Press reports that pressure to reduce the California cut score to as low as 133 is coming primarily from state law school deans. What a surprise.

A final decision on the California test rests with the state Supreme Court, which will weigh in sometime after Aug. 25. The Nevada Bar is no doubt paying close attention.

In the meantime, California is “studying the caliber and preparation of students in the state’s law schools,” the AP reports. If such a review concludes that a reduction in qualified students has adversely influenced the state bar pass rate, further diluting the standards — in Nevada or California — will amount to nothing more than a futile exercise in self-deception.

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