Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bar Passage: A Key Factor to Look To in USN Voting

For those filling out the U.S. News survey rating the academic quality of JD programs across the country, one logical question is what kind of information one ought to look at to make such determinations. Here's one key piece of data: bar passage rates relative to entering credentials.

So if we look at schools that have students with not-great entering credentials, but high bar passage rates in recent years -- that's a good signal that the quality of the JD program is relatively strong.

Two possible objections (and others welcome) on this as a metric: first, this encourages and rewards "teaching to the bar." My response is: well, the school that has pulled off one of the biggest bar-passage miracles of recent times, New York.Law School, raised bar passage rates -- 57% to 90% -- primarily by teaching struggling students analytic skills. See Dean Matasar's description of how they did it here (p. 3 of pdf). Intensive training in analytic skills for struggling students? Sounds good to me.

Second objection is: bar passage is already included in the U.S. News formula -- why double count it? The response is: bar passage counts for next to nothing (2%) in the US news formula, and it's considered on an absolute, not relative, basis. So Yale gets essentially the same credit for achieving a 90% bar passage rate in New York as New York Law School does, working with students with far lower entering credentials.

Below is the list we have so far, and thanks to Bill Henderson for pointing us in the direction of some of these schools. I'm quite sure we're missing some, and we're working on finalizing the list for that Voters' Guide out next week -- so please let us know other schools that might be considered to be in this category.

Schools that Achieve High Bar Passage Rates Relative to Entering Credentials:
Campbell (NC)
Duquesne (PA)
Florida Coastal
Florida International
Mercer (GA)
New York Law School
North Carolina Central
Texas Tech
University of Memphis
University of San Francisco



Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Could you say more about why relative bar passage rates are important, and for whom? It seems obvious that it should be relevant to students who worry about whether they are really qualified to attend law school, and that they won't be able to pass the bar. And to the extent quality means the capacity to serve those students, ditto for law schools assessing one another.

But should other students care about that -- say, those who feel they are right in the middle of the pack, or considering attending a school for which they are overqualified if one looks simply at the entering metrics? (This is presumably the kind of student you are trying to persuade to look past optimizing matriculation via USNWR rankings.) Should law professors regard such a school as of higher quality more generally, or does it require accepting the proposition that marginal candidates should be encouraged to attend law school in the first place? It depends in part on how much one regards law school as a discretionary kind of education, just one possible field among many for marginal students, or rather something more like secondary education in which the capacity to improve performance by everyone (perhaps especially those who lag) is vital. I can see reasonable minds differing quite a bit on that question, and some gravitating toward absolute bar passage rates as a more balanced measure.

P.S. Just as we should view critically the incentives that USNWR creates, so too the incentives your measure creates. Perhaps some achieve improvement by focusing on analytical skills -- which they should do anyway. But were this measure to become widely followed, do you think we *wouldn't* see much greater interest in teaching to the bar?

10/16/2008 9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tough methodology to get right. And it matters, a lot, to get it right. Otherwise it's all just noise. Even beyond controlling for entering statistics, you must also control for jurisdiction, since relative (not absolute) passage rates are the only thing that matters; e.g., a school with California test-takers is better than a similarly-situated school with South Dakota takers even if entering credentials and absolute passage rates are equivalent. Then non-quantitative factors come into play; for example, a regional school that can and does teach to a given bar should rank lower than a national school that can't even if the passage rates and entering statistics are equal (e.g., North Carolina Central can teach its students North Carolina law and help 'em pass the North Carolina bar, but Harvard and Howard can't do the same). So the quality of your methodology here will be the quality of your results.

10/16/2008 9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George Mason had the highest bar passage rate in the state last year, even though it competes with schools with stronger "entering" students--U. Va., W&M, W&L--and it doesn't teach to the Virginia bar at all.

10/17/2008 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which just shows you how silly it is to use bar pass rates for a single year. George Mason's average yearly pass rate is 75%, much lower than that of W&M (84%), W&L (87%), & UVa (92%) during this same period. And while students at these latter three schools pass the bar within +/- 2% of their expected rate given their entering credentials, George Mason students pass at over 7% less than their expected rate. Making it among the top ten worst schools in the nation on this metric. Nothing to be proud of.

10/17/2008 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that's just a stupid response, among other things because the quality of GMU students has changed substantially for the better in the last five years (eg, 75th % has risen from 161 LSAT to 166), we have reformed our four-semester legal research and writing program in that time, at least one-third of the faculty is new, and the day/evening student mix has changed heavily in favor of the former.

So, I will agree that the one-year rate is not a sufficient data point to go on, but stats from 5 years ago are completely irrelevant, and I'd wager that the next two years stats will look a lot more like last year's than like 5 years ago's.

10/17/2008 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harsh. But the rise in LSAT and GPA during the past few years hurts your argument (and makes Mason look worse) rather than helps it, since it means their bar passage rate should be better given the rise in entering credentials.

But just to make sure, even using only the most recent two years of data, George Mason still underperforms its expected bar passage rate by almost 5 full percentage points, which (again) is much worse than the other VA law schools that you mention (and still among the worst in the country, though admittedly no longer in the bottom ten).

But I'm sure I'm just making more "stupid" arguments. I'm sure the last year or two of data are also totally irrelevant, as is all of the math. Best to go on purely subjective assessments by one's own faculty and staff.

10/22/2008 11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, your argument still doesn't make sense. Our students are still weaker than U. Va.'s, W&M's, and W&L's, but we had a better bar passage rate than they do. Even last year's bar passage rate includes a three or four (for our evening students) lag. Since this is the "Moneyball" blog, by your reasoning we should be looking at how the Phillies performed in last five years, or even two years, rather than this year. Now, it's possible that there will be a regression to the mean. But if, say, a team won an average of 75 games over the last five years, and 82 over two years, but 93 last years, do you expect that next year's results will be closer to 75, 82, or 93?

10/26/2008 8:26 AM  

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