Oregon Supreme court to hold properly noticed public meeting on Bar exam, today

Elevator version: The Oregon Supreme Court tells the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners that they must add a new at-home bar exam for October, and give “diploma privilege” to all Oregon and most other law school 2020 grads, allowing them the right to practice law in Oregon if they can find a job.

Live-blog: It took a while, but I finally got connected to this meeting. The Court first voted in favor of allowing an October on-line (at home) exam as an optional substitute for the in-person one scheduled for July.

2:03 PM: – they’re now debating a motion from one of the judges to allow diploma privilege. But they don’t actually have a written motion. The other judges are throwing out questions, she’s saying things like “oh, right, the motion also would …, or maybe it should say….” Pretty amateur.

From what I can tell, the motion would give all those graduating this spring from Oregon law schools Bar admission without having to pass the bar exam. It would extend the same “privilege” to graduates of all ABA accredited schools with a first-time bar pass rate of 86% or better.

Why 86%? The judge says because the bar-pass rate is the best metric of law school quality, and the average national pass rate is 85%. The later is a mathematical fact, the former is nonsense. In 2017 Oregon lowered the cut-rate and the average pass rate for Oregon’s schools suddenly jumped from 60% to 84%. This improved the quality of an Oregon law school education?

As it happens, the ABA has recently released the latest pass data, and all three of Oregon’s law schools are below the judge’s magical 86% threshold:

UO: 85.86%

Willamette: 82.28%

Lewis and Clark:  80.98%

No one points this out. They do ask the Bar guy how many new lawyers this motion will produce – ones that would normally be screened out by the bar exam. His response doesn’t really makes sense to me. Maybe a hundred from Oregon, another hundred or so from other states? So maybe a 40-60% increase?

Still no written motion, but the court passes it anyway. So what did they pass? (They’re not sure either, so in the end they give it to their clerk to write up.)

Another judge then proposes a third motion – a lower cut rate for the July exam. Another surprisingly ill-informed and predictably innumerate discussion ensues. This also passes.

More confusion among the judges abut what exactly they did with motion 1.

Then UO’s Dean Burke asks the court to modify motion 2, to also extend the diploma privilege to students who have not yet graduated – i.e. summer 2020 grads. Still more confusion amongst the judges about what the motion originally said. They think it said Spring 2020, so they think they need to change it. Another dean tries to chime it. Eventually she figures out how to unmute herself. Asks about Winter 2020 grads. Why don’t they get privilege too? Sure, someone says – all 2020 graduates. Done.

Chief Justice Waters asks the court if they want to throw privilege at anyone else while they’re at it. Philosophers? Will no one move to give the PhD philosopher’s diploma privilege too?

Apparently not. Court adjourns.


In what may well be a first for the court:

WWeek’s 2017 story on the last time the Court met to goose the exam is here:

… UO Matters reports that Board of Bar Examiners held a closed door executive session to vote on whether it would recommend changing the passing bar exam number to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The board did not respond to UO Matters’ request for records of meeting material. It settled on a passing bar score of 276.

The deans’ letter, along with a letter of recommendation to change the bar score from the board’s chairman, Jeffrey Howes, was sent to Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Balmer.

On May 3, the Oregon Supreme Court accepted the request to change the requirement for becoming a practicing attorney.

The court voted on the score change during a 70-minute public meeting, where it was one of 30 agenda items. The Daily Emerald requested transcripts of the meeting and were provided a “non-specific page of minutes detailing the events of the meeting,” and no record of whether votes where cast.

It seems the Bar and the Court had no idea what they were doing, and increased the pass rate by far more than Oregon’s law deans had led them to expect. Which probably explains why the Bar is taking a hard line this time.

6/18/2020: Deans want to give law grads a free pass on bar exam, Bar objects

Back in 2017 the deans of Oregon Law Schools were upset by the fact that so few of their graduates were able to pass the bar exam. So they did what any business whose product failed to pass quality control would do – they asked the Oregon Bar and Supreme Court to make the exam easier.

After a bunch of meetings that probably violated Oregon’s public meetings and records laws, the bar and the court agreed to relax their standards, and the pass rate (for first time takers in the regular summer exam) has since jumped from 58% to 84%. (The UOM post on this, based on a series of public records requests, is here.)

Dumbing down the bar exam was good news for the deans, because the pass rate is part of the US News rankings they are evaluated on. It was also good news for the marginal students who otherwise would have failed, but bad news for the good students who could have passed the harder exams, because it devalues their credential and means more lawyers competing for the small pool of job openings. It was also bad news for the Oregon Bar’s current members, who don’t want competition from new lawyers driving down their earnings – but they went along anyway. (From what I could tell from the records the Bar eventually released they thought they were increasing the pass rate to about 68%, not 84%.)

Now the Deans are back, with a request that the Bar and the Oregon Supreme Court waive the bar exam requirement entirely this year, using the disruptions around the coronavirus and #BlackLivesMatter as justifications.

Nigel Jaquiss has the story in Willamette Week here, and a copy of the dean’s letter is here. Notable among the Law professors who did *not* sign on to it is UO President and Professor of Law Michael Schill.

The Oregon Board of Bar Examiner’s letter to the supreme’s is here. It’s pretty thorough, especially in comparison to the thin response the Deans put together, a month later, cited above. The Oregon Supreme Court has the final call, in what, this time, I expect will be a public meeting with minutes.

I feel sorry for all the law students – the good ones and the marginal ones – who have to deal with all the uncertainty this dispute over the exam has added to their lives.

How to boost STEM enrollment for women

Info on former UO CAS Assoc Dean Ian McNeely’s 2009 effort to bring grade inflation (most present in non-STEM fields) under control, which failed after massive faculty opposition and Johnson Hall indifference, is here.

If the argument below is correct, it would have led to a large shift of students – particularly women – towards STEM courses.

Colleen Flaherty in InsideHigherEd:

Harsher grading policies in science, technology, engineering and math courses disproportionately affect women — because women value good grades significantly more than men do, according to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

What to do? The study’s authors suggest restricting grading policies that equalize average grades across classes, such as curving all courses around a B grade. Beyond helping close STEM’s gender gap, they wrote, such a policy change would boost overall enrollment in STEM classes.

Using administrative data coupled with thousands of students’ course evaluations from the University of Kentucky from the fall of 2012, the study’s authors determined that students spent one hour more per week studying for a STEM course than for a non-STEM course, on average. At the same time, they earned lower grades in STEM courses.

The STEM classes in the sample were almost twice as large as their non-STEM counterparts and associated with grades that were 0.3 points lower. They were also associated with a 40 percent more study time.

Women in the sample had higher grades in both STEM and non-STEM courses than men. But they were significantly underrepresented in STEM.


Oregon Supreme Court gooses bar exam, pass rate jumps by 36%

9/27/2017 with 10/4 update:

Normally about 260 people pass the July Oregon Bar exam. This spring the Oregon Supreme Court dumbed down the pass score and made some other changes, and 360 people passed. Obviously this is good news for the 100 students who otherwise wouldn’t be licensed to practice law, and good news for the Oregon Bar, which collects an annual $470 from each. It’s bad news for those 260 students who would have passed the older, harder exam, and who now have to try and find a job in an even more flooded job market.

Oregon’s pass rate for the July exam, (all takers, not just UO students) has jumped from 58% last year to 79% this year. That’s a 21 percentage point increase or a (79-58)/58=36% increase in the success odds, in one year. In July 2016 the average pass rate for all US takers was 62%, compared to 58% for Oregon. So we were a little low, but not by much.

In July 2016, only Nebraska had a higher percentage of takers (82%) passing than Oregon’s 2017 new rate of 79%. (Kansas and Missouri were tied at 79%, Oregon’s new rate). See http://www.ncbex.org/pdfviewer/?file=%2Fdmsdocument%2F205 So, with one decision made without adequate prior public notice or discussion, and apparently with no discussion in the Oregon Supreme Court, Oregon has gone from being middle of the road to being among the four easiest states in which to get a license to practice law.

This is not what the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners intended. According to internal documents obtained with a public records request, the BBX believed these changes would increase the pass rate to about 68%. They explicitly rejected a proposal from the three deans of Oregon’s law schools for an even lower cut-score, apparently because they thought that would produce a pass rate of 78%, which they thought was too high. I wonder if the deans will now argue for raising the cut-score and lowering the pass rate?

(From the April 19 letter from BBX chair Jeffrey Howes to Oregon Chief SC Justice Thomas Balmer, at https://uomatters.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Official-letters-to-Court-BBX-PubRcrdsReq-Aug-17.pdf)

In short Oregon’s new test, with the new lower cut-score, is much easier to pass than the old one, and much easier than the BBX led the Supreme Court to believe. It has given Oregon what is almost the highest pass rate in the country.

It’s true that the new exam will also make it easier for Oregon law students to move to other states, assuming their score was high enough to have passed those state’s cut-rate. But why is Oregon subsidizing the tuition of out-of-state students who will take out-of state legal jobs – if they can even find them?

For comparison, last July:

Michael Tobin has a brief report about this in the Daily Emerald, here.

10/4/2017 NOTE: I’ve now received two letters from the Oregon Bar, arguing that they did not break the public meetings law, while also promising that they will now post meeting notices on the bar’s website. As you can see from their October posting, they’re still trying to figure this transparency thing out:

I’ve got some more public records requests into them and the Oregon Supreme Court (which has updated its website and fixed some of its public records procedures in response to my previous questions to them) and I will post what I find out.

Posted 9/27/2017 and earlier:

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UO grade inflation continues, after reform efforts fail

Will Campbell has an excellent data driven story with the history of UO’s failed efforts to fight grade inflation in the Emerald here:

… In 2009, when [CAS Associate Dean Ian McNeely] became chair of the Undergraduate Council, the university-wide body that oversees undergraduate education, he became familiar with grade inflation.

He decided to look into the grading culture at UO. He talked to at least five committees around campus, met with deans and the UO president, held town hall meetings and eventually published a blog in May 2010 to create a wider conversation for UO faculty about grading trends.

McNeely used a UO report from 2006 of the university’s grade statistics as evidence for grade inflation. The report found that between 1992 and 2004, the percentage of A’s awarded went up by about 10 percentage points — 31.3 percent to 41.6 percent— and the percentage of A’s and B’s together went up by seven points — from 65.6 percent to 72.6 percent.

McNeely published a report the next month with three proposals to take action against inflation. The report states that McNeely proposed each department develop specific grading standards, or “collaborate and decide on their own general description on an A, B, C grade, and so on,” he said.

He and the undergraduate council also wanted each department to evaluate the grading habits of its professors. That way department leaders would be able to safeguard against inflation. McNeely’s third proposal suggested that students’ transcripts show what percentage of the class received the same grade. “So that would almost be an incentive for professors not to inflate grades because then it might look bad on a student’s transcript,” he said.

The first proposal passed in the senate, but McNeely said that not every department complied. The other two proposals failed on the senate floor.

Currently, McNeely is unaware of any administrative initiatives to combat grade inflation, he wrote in an email to the Emerald. …

There’s much more, read it all.

The Emerald also has an interface that lets you look at grades by course and instructor here. For example,  here’s one of the infamous AAD 250 Gen Ed classes that VP for Academic Affairs Doug Blandy set up:

Oregon researchers discover college with higher grades than Harvard

From today’s Harvard Crimson:

“I can answer the question, if you want me to.” (Dean) Harris said. “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”

From UO Matters story, “VPAA Doug Blandy pulls off daring $1M credit hour heist”:

Everybody gets an A

8/23/2011: Apparently the average grade in upper level courses in UO’s College of Education is now 4.04. This generic problem at Ed schools is described and criticized in this paper (data shown is from Indiana):

This paper documents a startling difference in the grading standards between education departments and other academic departments at universities – undergraduate students in education classes receive significantly higher grades than students in all other classes. This phenomenon cannot be explained by differences in student quality or structural differences across departments (i.e., differences in class sizes). Drawing on evidence from the economics literature, the differences in grading standards between education and non-education departments imply that undergraduate education majors, the majority of whom become teachers, supply substantially less effort in college than non-education majors. If the grading standards in education departments were brought in line with those of other major academic departments, student effort would be expected to increase by at least 10-16 percent.

In my department the chair sends out an email every quarter showing how many A’s and B’s each professor gave out in each class, along with another email showing all the teaching evaluations. If you give out lots of A’s to get good evaluations you won’t fool anyone. Problem solved, except we still don’t give out enough D’s and F’s.