How do grading and scoring work for the California Bar Exam?

“How do you calculate your score on the California Bar Exam? How does grading work? i WeNt tO lAw ScHoOL bEcAusE i SuCk aT mAth LOL”

I can feel a blood vessel dilating in my head and an urge to throw my keyboard out the window every time I hear someone say this. If this is your idea of a joke, just leave this planet now before things get more embarrassing for both of us.

While it isn’t politically incorrect for Americans to brag about deficiencies in their math skills, I won’t have that around here.

First of all, stop using this self-deprecatory language. You took the SAT and a shitload of math classes until you were old enough to drive. You can do basic math. Or “maths” if you’re British and like to make words unnecessarily complicated (Worcestershire sauce anyone?)

You are capable—of doing math, doing Pereira and Van Camp calculations, and passing the bar exam.

Second of all, why are we still confused about how grading works for the California Bar Exam? Should I blame the State Bar for its lack of transparency? Are my optimism and faith in you people misplaced?

But if you’re frustrated and confused by the numbers, I’m happy to put a rest to this once and for all.

Knowing how your bar exam works is one of the foundations in your quest to pass the exam. Study not just the law—but also the rules if you want to win the game.

Indeed, it’s the very first step of preparation that I recommend in Passer’s Playbook 2.0:

Part of successful preparation on the California Bar Exam is knowing how the grading works.

Let’s look at three aspects, step by step:

  • Grading: how graders give you points
  • Scaling: how the State Bar adjusts the points
  • Scoring: how your overall score is derived and the ultimate importance of the 1390 threshold

And then a summary and takeaways on how knowing the grading procedure can help you prepare for the CA Bar Exam.

These discussions will diverge a bit depending on whether you’re taking the two-day General Bar Exam or the one-day Attorneys’ Exam.

Grading process and what the points mean for the California Bar Exam

Grading the essays

Before the graders go off and skim your essays while sitting on the toilet or at a stoplight, they convene three times to go through a calibration process, to “ensure they are still grading to the same standards.”

Each of the five essays is given raw points ranging from 0 to 100. Realistically, you’ll likely get around 55-70 for each of your essays, at least 40-45 points just for writing down a good-faith answer.

A second grader will reread your essays and PT only if your overall scaled score was close to passing, between 1350 and 1390. This is “designed to correct false negatives by re-evaluating borderline papers that may have been, incorrectly, assessed below the cut line.”

Grading the performance test (PT)

The PT is also given 0-100 points. These raw points are doubled. Hence, the PT is worth twice as much as an essay.

The raw score for the written portion is out of 700 points: 500 points from the five essays, 200 points from the PT.

If you’re taking the Attorneys’ Exam, this is the entire basis for your overall scaled score.

If you’re taking the general exam, the written portion counts for half of your overall score. The other half comes from the MBE.

Grading the MBE

The MBE also has raw scores (number of questions correct) that are converted to scaled scores.

But you only see the scaled score on your score report. The “percent below” numbers are percentiles. This number means you did better than that percentage of test takers. The higher the number, the better.

While those percentiles give you a sense of which subjects to emphasize when studying for the MBE again, they are not representative of your scores.

Myths around what is a passing score for the essay or the MBE

⚠ You do not “pass” an essay or a PT by scoring a certain amount. You only pass or do not pass the exam itself based on your overall scaled score. ⚠

Technically speaking, an essay that scores a 65 does not mean you “pass” the essay. It’s just a score. Rather, it historically put you on track to pass, assuming all else is similar.

Under the new cut score of 1390, an average raw written score of approximately 61 would typically get you to a scaled written score of 1390. You do not “pass” or “fail” the written portion. You do not “pass” or “fail” the MBE portion. You do not need to “pass” both sections to pass the exam. You could get all 60s on the essays and PT and still pass the exam. You could get all 70s on the essays and PT and still fail the exam. A high MBE score is not an “auto-pass,” but it will reduce the score you need on the written side. In that sense, high-scoring essays and PT are also an “auto-pass.”

If you say “passing essay” as a shorthand for the above, fine. But please try not to spread misinformation that you can “pass” or “fail” a given essay or PT, or that you can “pass” or “fail” the MBE. Rant over.

Scaling the points for the California Bar Exam

Your raw written score out of 700 is converted to a 2000-point scaled score using a formula unique to that exam. The California State Bar will publish the formula after each result.

Your raw MBE score (how many you got correct) is also converted to a 2000-point scaled score using a formula unique to that exam. This conversion is determined by the NCBE and is no longer published. Here’s one example from many years ago.

Here are example score reports that show you how raw written scores translate into scaled scores. If you’re wondering how many MBE questions you got right, you can see some examples of combinations of MBE percentiles here to see what it would look like as a scaled score.

There is no linear conversion for either the essays or the MBE. Scoring 1350 out of 2000 doesn’t mean you got 67.5% correct. Leave the exact formulation of the conversion to the statisticians, and stop trying to extrapolate with “quick maths.”

If you want more specifics, open this for more:

See the page explaining scaling by the CA State Bar and the 2017 Bar Exam Report. An excerpt from the latter:

This is from 2017, so the max raw score of 1,000 is no longer applicable (it’s now 700). Same with the 1440 cut score (now 1390). But the scaling process should be the same.

Based on the above, here’s my understanding of the scaling:

Converting the MBE raw scores to scaled scores adjusts for difficulty of the exam and makes a given scaled score equivalent to the same scaled score in any other exam; this is done using “a set of questions that have been used before and whose difficulty is known.” This scaling is done to ensure consistency across administrations.

The written raw scores are scaled to the MBE scaled scores (within CA); this is the “curve” that correlates the written score distribution to the MBE score distribution within a given administration. They do this because the MBE has known variables; see above paragraph. The written portion does not: “Equating cannot be used for bar examination written sections because it is not appropriate to repeat essay or PT questions across administrations of the examination.” Given the first part above, this inherently provides scaled scores for the written portion that are equivalent across administrations.

Yes, you can estimate roughly, but it’s not as simple as 1 raw point = x scaled points. Each administration has a unique formula based on various statistics obtained from that very exam. By definition, there is no universal formula that you can use, only historical data you can try to estimate with.

Honestly, you don’t need to know the fine details.

Just know that a 65 raw on an essay or 125 correct on the MBE will get you different results each time you take the exam. Those are nice benchmarks, but they mean slightly different things every time—another reason they are technically not “passing” scores. This is on purpose, to make each exam and grading process theoretically equivalent to one another. Whether the scaling does its job correctly is a separate matter.

In other words, a given raw score one year is not the same (or at least doesn’t produce the same outcome) as the same raw score another year. But a given scaled score is supposed to be equivalent to the same scaled score another year. That’s how they can make meaningful comparisons across exams and say that 1390 is a passing score.

How your raw and scaled scores determine whether you pass the California Bar Exam

You doing OK? Here’s the story so far:

  • Graders give you raw scores (e.g., 60 on an essay, 125 on the MBE).
  • The State Bar converts raw scores to standardized scaled scores out of 2000 (for example, 1370 for written portion, 1410 for MBE portion).

Now, the scaled written score and the scaled MBE score are averaged together to arrive at the overall scaled score, also out of 2000. Since each portion is weighted equally at 50%, we can simply average the two together. Put simply, this overall scaled score will be the midpoint between the scaled written and MBE scores.

This overall scaled score is what matters. You pass the exam if you meet or exceed the prescribed threshold—1390 starting in 2020 October. 1440 for 2020 February and prior.

If you’re taking the Attorneys’ Exam, only the written scaled score matters.

Examples: You have a scaled written score of 1380 and a scaled MBE score of 1400. Your overall scaled score is 1390. You will pass with these two scores in October if you’re taking the General Bar Exam. You will not pass with this written score in October if you’re taking the Attorneys’ Exam.

Summary and takeaways about how grading works for the California Bar Exam

Here’s a quick rundown of what we just talked about:

  • Graders give you raw scores. These raw scores don’t indicate whether you pass a particular essay or PT, or the MBE
  • The raw scores are converted to scaled scores based on a statistical study unique to that exam. These scaled scores don’t indicate whether you pass the written portion or the MBE portion
  • The scaled scores averaged together determine whether you pass or fail the exam (or possibly a reread if you were close)

Now with arrows and symbols:

  • Raw written score –> scaled written score
  • Raw MBE score –> scaled MBE score
  • (Scaled written score + scaled MBE score) / 2 = overall scaled score
  • Overall scaled score meets or exceeds 1390 –> pass
  • Overall scaled score is lower than 1390 but higher than 1350 –> second read
  • Overall scaled score is lower than 1350 –> fail

Hopefully this cleared up the black-box mystery that is the grading process for the California bar. Don’t let me catch you being confused about this again.

So how does knowing the grading procedure help you with preparing for the California Bar Exam?

This means you can attack the exam more strategically, especially if you’re a repeater.

If you see that you’re getting 60 on your essays and think you’re “failing” all your essays, but don’t notice that you were actually very close to a 1440 or 1390 on the written side, then you might waste time focusing too much on essays. Now you know that you actually did pretty well.

Or you see that your scaled score was rather low but you don’t notice that you got a 55 on the PT. You might then neglect to work on your PT in favor of essays, a common pitfall. Your average raw score goes up by 10/7 or about 1.43 points for every 5 points on the PT.

Knowing your score breakdown, you could instead aim for the low-hanging fruit, get 10 more points on the PT, and add 20 more raw written points (almost as good as +5 points on all essays).

And btw, every 5-point increment on the California Bar Exam is critical.

The MBE results are sometimes deceptive. The numbers may seem pretty good. Maybe you did 20% on some subjects but did better than most on the others. You can use the relative percentiles to surgically treat your weak subjects, but you should also look at the scaled score to see how far you actually are from the “passing” score of 1390.

👉🏻  Now that you know the rules of the game, it’s time to review the rules of law (and the issues) quickly and efficiently with Magicsheets, which are condensed outlines organized for the California Bar Exam. 

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