Is the Michigan bar exam getting easier to pass?
Let’s talk about raw essay scores versus converted essay scores.
When you receive bar exam results, you will have two numbers: An MBE score (which you are hoping is around 135 at least, as that is considered a passing score) and a converted essay score (which you are hoping is around 135, at least, as that is considered a passing score). (You can see the “MBE scaled score” is labeled below. You can also see the converted essay score is labeled below.)
The MBE score is added to the converted essay score and divided by two – so each portion is worth 50%. If you received a 150 on your MBE and a 120 as your converted essay score, your result would be a 135—a passing score in Michigan. These are really the only two numbers that matter when determining your score.
You will also notice a third number on your score report – a “raw” essay score. (This would be right under “TOTAL” where the “XX” is on the above picture). This is the essay score that they somehow “convert” into a different essay score. They use a strange new “undisclosed” grading formula (that they started using in 2014)
The Michigan Board of Law Examiners’ says that this undisclosed formula is supposed to even out scores among administrations. And maybe it does. (I truly do not know why they believe that!) I do know, however, that the practical effect of the grading formula is that it lets the Michigan Board of Law Examiner’s have complete control the passage rate. See this post if you are curious about that. They can decide to make it lower, or higher, or stay at a specific percentage every single exam. And there is absolutely no oversight, double-checking, or even knowledge about how they decide to “scale” scores.
(Note, this is not to say that the Michigan Board of Law Examiners’ has a bad motive or some overall passage rate scheme. However, it is to say that we truly believe score calculations should be revealed for the public to know. After all, many licenses depend on it.)
If you call the Michigan Board of Law Examiners (BLE) and ask them what this grading formula is, they may tell you, as they sometimes tell students who call, “I don’t know, I just plug numbers into a computer.” Or they may tell you, as they sometimes tell students who call, that it is “so complicated your brain could never understand it.”
This is probably true for those of us who are terrible at math. However, I would still like to know what it is given that it makes the difference between passing and failing for many students.
Though we don’t know this super-complicated formula that we could, according to them, never understand anyway, we have had the chance to examine hundreds of score reports over the last few administrations.
And what we noticed is that the grading formula appeared to be as follows:
In July 2014: The BLE added basically 34 points to everyone’s raw score. If you received a “raw’ essay score of 105, it would “convert” to 139. If you received a “raw” essay score of, say, 90, it would “convert to a 124. There formula appeared to be pretty simple. Raw score + 34 points = converted score. The effect of this was that students who scored low were receiving unnaturally high scores and students who scored high received lower scores than they otherwise would. It basically pushed all scores toward the middle of the spectrum.
In February 2015 and July 2015: The BLE didn’t keep it at a flat “add 34 points” scale. Instead, they added between 30 points to many scores of students (who were receiving raw scores in the 80’s) and closer to 36 points to the scores of students who received raw scores in the 90’s and 100’s). So these years, the formula was raw score + 30-36 points. This was a better formula as it didn’t inflate low scores so much and deflate high scores.
In February 2016: To our surprise, the Michigan BLE added between 40 and 49 points to the raw scores of examinees! Students whose raw score was in the 80’s were receiving 43 or 44 points additional points. (So an 84, for example, would be converted to a 127). Students who scored in the 90’s received 44- 45 extra points for converted essay scores of 134-141. Students who scored in the 100’s received 46 points, the 110’s received 47 points, the 120’s received 48 points.
In July 2015, if your raw score was a 108, it would be converted to a 141 – six points above passing. In February 2016, if your raw score was 108, it would be converted to a 154 – 19 points above passing!! This is a 13 point difference!!!
Even more importantly:
That means, if you received a raw essay score of 108 in July 2015 (which converts to 141), you would have to get a 129 on the MBE to pass the Michigan bar exam (with a score of 135).
If you received a raw essay score of 108 in February 2016 (which converts to 154), you could receive a 116 on the MBE and still pass!!
This is crazy and should make everyone want to sign up for my essay course so they can increase their essay score as much as possible and forget about the MBE! (just kidding…)
[In reality, though, many of our students passed because we provide a huge advantage over commercial courses in terms of what is tested on the Michigan bar exam essays. Many of our students received essay scores in the 150’s and 160’s which effectively meant that their MBE score truly did not matter on the February 2016 Michigan bar exam.]
But, the real question moving forward is, why did they do this and will it continue?
Why they did this – here are some guesses:
- They wanted to keep the passage rate at 64% in February. (We are not sure why. In Michigan, they keep the passage rate almost just as high in February as they do in July – this is very unusual and most states have significantly lower passage rates in February than Michigan. For example, California’s passage rate fell to 35%. New York’s also fell to 41%. Arizona’s was 49%. Most states with bar exams as competitive as Michigan’s have a significantly lower passage rate than 64%). However, if you look at the history of the Michigan bar exam, statistically Michigan has maintained a relatively high passage rate. So maybe they wanted to keep it.
- They thought it was a harder bar exam (testing Agency and Conflicts) and wanted to boost the essay scores because of it. In reality, it truly was a hard bar exam – it contained a tricky double jeopardy question, a very difficult evidence question, and myriad other questions that students had trouble with. But, to be honest, it was not super-hard compared to essay exams given in the past. (For example, see July 2014 where they added a flat 34 points to everyone’s score!) Even the “unusual” subjects that they tested contained very predictable issues. (Anyone who bought my How to Pass the Michigan Bar Exam book or listened to any speech of mine would have known to memorize the issues they tested in Conflicts, Agency, and Secured Transactions.) They even warned us they would be testing unusual subjects (as my blog readers and students know!)
Will they continue to keep the scale high?
If the reason for doing it was to keep the passage rate above a certain percentage, then likely not. In July, with more first time takers who have law school fresh in their minds, they will not have to add so many points to keep the passage rate around 60%.
If the reason for doing it was because they tested unusual topics, let’s all be thankful they tested Agency and Equity on the July 2016 exam!! (Again, neither question was super-hard. Agency contained standard Agency issues. Equity tested preliminary injunctions, which is the one thing that I tell all my students they must know!) Even the No-Fault question contained the standard issue of noneconomic damages, which they have tested the last seven times they tested No-Fault. Nonetheless, due to the “unsual” subjects, maybe they’ll keep this generous score boost!
If so, then perhaps the bar exam is getting easier to pass. Or maybe it will just become easier to pass in February than July. Or maybe this generous curve was a one-time deal and it is not getting easier. Time will tell.
Also note: This post is not meant to diminish the accomplishments of anyone who passed the bar exam in February. The February exam was a hard exam, the passage rate was still 64% and every single person who passed earned it.
Truly, rather than diminishing any of the accomplishments of those that passed the February 2016 bar exam, the point of this post is, rather, to point out an interesting grading curve and conjecture why it existed and whether it will continue.
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