I see so many myths about the bar exam repeated over and over that I decided to collect some of them together in this post. I may add to the post as I see others. Please feel free to leave comments with other myths you come across. These myths are not in any particular order.
Myth #1. Bar exam difficulty is similar across all jurisdictions. The fact is that the difficulty of passing the bar varies greatly from state to state. A person could pass the bar with a significant margin to spare in one state and still fail by a significant margin in another. The difficulty of most state bars is scaled to a passing score based on the Multistate Bar Exam. California and Delaware have the highest required scores to pass, and most other states have much lower scores. To give an illustration, in the California July 2016 bar only 43% passed. If they had taken the bar in New York, 70% would have passed.
Myth #2. The New York bar exam is a very difficult exam compared to other states. This myth is often repeated by people who note that New York historically had a lower pass percentage than many other states. However, this is largely because of the large number of foreign-trained lawyers who take the bar in New York, who pass at much lower rates than US-trained lawyers. The reality is that New York's bar exam is average in its difficulty to pass.
Myth #3. The California bar exam's low passing rate is low only because of unaccredited law schools. It is true that California allows people to take the bar who have not graduated from an ABA-accredited school, and that these examinees fail at a much higher rate than other examinees. However, these are a small portion of the overall number of bar takers in California, and do not significantly affect the passing rate. The reason the passing rate is so low in California is because the required passing score is so high (second only to Delaware). The average test taker in California is actually stronger than the average nationwide.
Myth #4. The bar exam is graded on a curve. This myth is often repeated in connection with a claim that a particularly strong (or weak) crop of exam takers will make it harder (or easier) to pass in a particular year. The bar exam (like many standardized tests) is equated over time, not curved in a particular administration. This means that the difficulty of passing the bar does not change from year to year, and does not depend on who else takes it. In theory, everyone could pass or fail any bar in a particular year.
Myth #5 The February bar is easier than the July bar. Many people believe this because so many people who fail the bar in July retake it in February. This is based on Myth #4, that the ability of others taking the exam affects your chance of passing it, which isn't true.
Myth #6. You can tell how hard a state's bar is just by looking at the pass rate. It is true that more difficult bar exams tend to have lower pass rates, but there is not a 1:1 relationship between the pass rate and the difficulty of the bar mainly because the ability of takers varies greatly from state to state.
Myth #7. When a law school's bar passage rate goes up/down it's because the school did something right/wrong. The bar exam is a very reliable test (reliable in the test theory sense), but it is not perfect. A typical law school with 200 or so students could see pass rate fluctuations of several percent from year to year just by chance. Thus, you really can't draw much of an inference from a change of a few points in the bar passage rate from year to year. If more law schools realized this, there would be fewer panicked and potentially harmful modifications to curriculum in response to a particular year's pass rate. In recent years, bar passage rates have been declining far beyond the margin of error because of declining quality of entering classes in most schools. Incidentally, this is doing a disservice to law students and should be stopped, as I argue here.
Myth #8. The LSAT is the best predictor of your chances of passing the bar. The LSAT actually is a fairly good predictor of your chances of passing the bar, but not the best. Your law school GPA (in particular your first-year GPA) is a much better predictor. This is especially true if you also take into account the competitiveness of the law school.
Myth #9. A law school's bar passage rate tells you a lot about how well it prepares students for the bar. This one may be less of a "myth" and more of a disagreement about what "a lot" means. Over 70% of the bar passage rate of a given law school is predicted by its median LSAT, median GPA, and the difficulty of the state's bar exam. The difference in "preparation" you receive from any given law school versus another for passing the bar exam is likely marginal.
Myth #10. I had ten myths about the bar exam. I was only able to come up with 9.