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Editorial: Uniform bar exam is not the problem, is law school?

There are some advantages to taking a national test, especially in a professional field.

You can see how you stack up against other test-takers across the country and, in the case of the Uniform Bar Examination, a passing score makes it easier to practice law in other states that give the same test instead of having to take another exam there.

This year, the University of New Mexico School of Law started giving the national exam, which is used in about half of U.S. states.

The results weren’t pretty. The number of students who passed the exam on their first try (68 percent) in July was down 13 percentage points compared to July 2015 (81 percent) on the old state exam. Those who failed were disproportionately minorities and women. None of the 14 Native American students who took the test passed.

The law school’s two deans – another arrangement rather unique to New Mexico – said, in a letter to alumni and other people associated with the school, that some other states that adopted the test also saw pass rates drop as well. But Arizona, which adopted the test in 2012, was not one of them. And Colorado’s pass rate dropped slightly from 2012 to 2015.

In their letter, co-deans Sergio Pareja and Alfred Mathewson said the new exam will be studied to see what changes the school needs to make to boost the first-time pass rate to 80 percent by 2018. They also set a goal of having 85 percent of students pass within 18 months.

In the previous test, half of the essay questions were about New Mexico law. They are not in the new test, and subjects like Indian law and administrative law are not included in the test.

There already are cries to abandon the uniform exam. That would be the wrong thing to do and an admission that we just can’t compete.

The question is not whether the test is too hard, but whether the law school needs to adapt to prepare its students with the uniform exam in mind.

It’s a competitive world, and passing a uniform bar exam better positions UNM law students as they enter the practice of law. The deans are right to take this approach, and the suggestion by Regents president Rob Doughty, also a UNM law grad, that the school should refocus its efforts on fundamentals is a good one.

Figure out what’s missing and fill in the holes.

That also means paying special attention to minority students and working with the legal community to prepare them.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.