The Case for a Uniform Cut Score

The Journal of the Legal Profession, Vol. 42:1, (2017)

16 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2017 Last revised: 23 Feb 2018

See all articles by Joan W. Howarth

Joan W. Howarth

William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV; Michigan State University College of Law

Date Written: August 11, 2017


To our detriment, attorneys have become accustomed to state-by-state disparities in the cut score for our national, multiple choice licensing test, the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). MBE cut scores range from 129 in Wisconsin to 145 in Delaware. The states with the most licensed attorneys, New York and California, use MBE cut scores of 133 and 144, respectively, which land on different sides of the national MBE score bell curve bulge. No one pretends that these disparities are justified because practicing law as a new lawyer is more difficult in California than in New York. The MBE cut score is typically more an aspect of a state bar’s culture and history than a purposeful decision.

These MBE cut score disparities constitute bad logic because every state is attempting to use the same test to predict exactly the same thing: minimum competence to practice law. They are bad science because setting a cut score is a “critical step” in assuring the validity of the use of the exam. MBE cut score disparities are also bad public policy, which explains why professions other than law have moved to uniform multiple choice test cut scores in their licensing tests.

Keywords: Bar Exams, Attorney Licensing, Cut Scores, Standard Setting

Suggested Citation

Howarth, Joan W., The Case for a Uniform Cut Score (August 11, 2017). The Journal of the Legal Profession, Vol. 42:1, (2017). Available at SSRN: or

Joan W. Howarth (Contact Author)

William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV ( email )

4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States

Michigan State University College of Law ( email )

318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

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