The July 2016 California bar exam data came out a couple of weeks ago and the results were rough. Only about 42% of those who took the exam passed, which is a multi-decade low. In this short post, I break down some information about the bar exam, focused on those who didn't pass. I haven't linked the backup information for each point I make, but I will do so if comments request it.
First, the California bar exam is the second-toughest in the country, with only Delaware having a more difficult exam. There are actually large differences in the difficulty of passing the various state bars. Some bars are extremely easy, and a few are very difficult. Unfortunately California has one of the difficult ones. The "difficulty" of the exam is based on the passing Multistate Bar Exam "cut score," which is 144 in California. Most states have passing scores that are much lower.
Second, most of the people who failed the California bar exam would have passed if they took the bar in other states. For example, although only 42% of those who took the bar exam in California passed, 70% would have passed if California used New York's passing score, which is much lower. If they had taken the bar in Wisconsin, which is one of the easiest, the pass rate would have been 80%. In fact, California examinees perform better than examinees as a whole in other states, even states with higher pass rates. This is why the pass rate within a state is not very informative on its own.
Third, most of those who took the California bar exam for the first time and didn't pass were very close to passing. Although examinees who pass the bar do not get their scores, those who fail the bar do get their scores. When you receive your score, if you took the exam for the first time you will probably learn that you came very close to passing.
Fourth, in many cases, especially for first time takers, you only failed because of "bad luck." Although the bar exam is very reliable, in any given examination about 15% of the results would be different if the same examinees took a different test. Some would have passed instead of failing and some would have failed instead of passing.
I have written this short post for two reasons. First, if you failed the exam, I hope this is encouragement for you to pull yourself up and gear up for the February exam. If you passed the exam, congratulations, but I hope you realize that for many of you the result could have easily been otherwise, so don't think you necessarily know more than your friends who didn't pass.