Only a quarter of applicants passed the California bar exam in its most recent sitting, the State Bar of California announced this week, a record low for the test that lawyers must successfully complete to practice in the state.
The pass rate for the February exam sank to just 27.3 percent, about 7 percentage points lower than last year and the first time since 1986 that it has fallen below 30 percent. The previous low, according to a summary of results since 1951, came in the spring of 1983, when 27.7 percent of applicants passed.
In a statement Friday, executive director Leah T. Wilson said the State Bar recently launched an intervention program to "improve performance on the bar exam" and "better understand the downward trend of the bar exam pass rates." It is also preparing to complete a study about the needs of entry-level lawyers, in order to evaluate the exam standards.
"Over the long term, we need to be sure that we are testing for the skills and content that new attorneys need, and that we are doing so in the right format," Wilson said.
California sets a higher cutoff score for its bar exam than any state except Delaware, and it frequently has the lowest pass rate in the country. Critics have long contended that it is unnecessarily restrictive, keeping otherwise qualified individuals out of the legal profession, particularly women and minorities.
Several law school deans last year called on the state to reduce the score. But in October, the California Supreme Court declined, noting that the pass rate has fluctuated over time and recent drops appeared to be part of a "broader national pattern."
"In making this determination, the court expects the State Bar to complete its other bar exam studies and to continue analyzing whether the exam or any of its components might warrant modification," the six sitting justices wrote in a letter.
More than 4,700 applicants took the bar exam in February, and the 1,282 who passed are now eligible to seek a law license from the State Bar. The pass rate was much higher overall for first-time applicants (39 percent) than it was for repeat applicants (23 percent.)
The bar exam, which is given twice a year, generally produces worse results in February than in July, when many recent law school graduates are taking it for the first time.
Last July, after the test was shortened from three days to two, the pass rate jumped nearly 7 points to 49.6 percent, reversing a three-year slide. The July 2016 pass rate of 43 percent was the worst ever for the summer exam.