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California Bar Exam Pass Rate Spikes in First-Ever Online Test

Jan. 9, 2021, 3:55 AM

Nearly three-quarters of first-time test takers passed California’s October bar exam, a rate that jumped to the highest level in 12 years after the test was moved online and the minimum passing score reduced.

A total of 74% of first-time takers passed the exam, up from 64% in the July 2019 test, which was held in-person. The overall passage rate for a total of more than 9,300 test takers also rose, up to 60.7% from 50% last year, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

The two-day exam had several firsts in the state—the first remote online exam, a response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the first with a cut score of 1390, which the California Supreme Court dropped from 1440 last July. The exam also was the first graded under a streamlined system designed to improve efficiency.

“We are pleased that the first-ever remote bar exam will result in such a large influx of new attorneys at a time when more people than ever need legal help,” bar interim Executive Director Donna Hershkowitz said in a statement.

The 9,300 people who sat for the test was the largest group for a California bar exam since 2013.

The results come as California and other states plan to hold the February edition of the biannual tests online. The shift to remote exams raised technological, privacy, and other concerns among test takers, as well as calls to allow attorneys to be licensed without taking the test.

Pilar Escontrías, who lost a California Supreme Court bid to waive the state’s bar exam requirement, said there are likely numerous reasons that the pass rate is at a 12-year high.

“Focusing on why the pass rate has increased, however, detracts from the reality that the bar exam is fundamentally problematic, with online delivery during a pandemic heightening already-entrenched social inequalities,” Escontrías said in an email late Friday.

Among first-time applicants, 84% from California schools that have American Bar Association accreditation passed the exam. That compares to a 78% passage rate for applicants from out-of-state ABA schools, 40% of California-accredited schools, 56% from unaccredited schools, and 34% unaccredited correspondence schools.

Mixed Bag Elsewhere

Test takers across the country have seen mixed results in their states’ first-ever online bar exams.

The October pass rate spiked to 84% in New York, a nearly 20% jump from the in-person test in July of 2019. The number of test takers for the online exam dropped by nearly half, however, a change that observers said likely boosted the pass rate.

Pass rates ticked up in Washington, D.C. (76.3%), Maryland (70%), and Ohio (77.3%) in those states’ online exams, while Texas saw its pass rate (60%) plummet by 17%.

Cheating Probe Slashed

More than one-third of the 9,300 people who sat for the October exam in California were initially flagged for possible cheating by artificial intelligence proctor software provided by test company ExamSoft. The list was later whittled down to some 400 test takers based on manual review of video footage.

The State Bar has affirmed 47 cases of sanctionable October bar exam rule-breaking or cheating, about 1.5% of the 3,190 cases initially flagged, spokeswoman Teresa Ruano told Bloomberg Law Friday.

Those 47 cases included “indisputable” offenses that cannot be appealed at a hearing, including leaving the view of a computer camera, or having an electronic device in the examination area, Ruano said, as well as hearing-eligible matters such as having food and beverage in the examination area.

To contact the reporters on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at; Sam Skolnik in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at; Meghashyam Mali at