Altered exam grades benefitted Charleston law school, study shows

COLUMBIA -- The Charleston School of Law benefited from the grade changes on South Carolina's recent bar exam, a State newspaper analysis of the grades has found.

In the first year for graduates of the Charleston school to take the test to become lawyers in South Carolina, 70 percent needed to pass to meet a national benchmark held by the American Bar Association.

Without the grade changes, 65.1 percent passed. After the changes, 69.9 percent passed.

After the state Supreme Court threw out one of the bar exam's sections, grades were changed for 20 people who initially failed. Eight of those attended the Charleston school, which graduated its first class this year.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, another justice and school leaders said the decision to change the bar results had nothing to do with the private school.

"The state of the Charleston school had absolutely no impact on the decision we made," Toal said Friday. "Our decision was without any information on the identities of the examinees by way of their name or ... their school."

The rate is important because the Charleston school is operating under provisional accreditation.

"Nobody did anything for the Charleston School of Law," chairman Alex Sanders said.

"We weren't a party to (the court's decision last month)," said Sanders, who was the first chief judge of the state's Court of Appeals. "We didn't know it until it happened."

Asked if Toal or any other Judicial Department members have helped in the school's accreditation process, Sanders replied, "We didn't get any help from the judicial department."

Toal said she and "many, many" S.C. judges were interviewed by an ABA accreditation team about the Charleston school, though she added, "I've never had any discussions with anyone up there about bar passage rates."

Unwritten rule?

Rumors have been circulating in South Carolina's legal community for over a month that the grade changes were done partly to improve the school's chances to receive full accreditation.

The Charleston school, which opened in 2004, received provisional accreditation from the ABA a year ago and is working toward full accreditation. The ABA requires provisional schools to be in compliance with all its standards, including bar passage rates, to receive full accreditation.

Although the ABA, which accredits law schools nationwide, doesn't have a written required passage rate, a minimum 70-percent passage rate has been a "rule of thumb" used for years, said Bucky Askew, the ABA's consultant on legal education.

Askew stressed the below-70 score doesn't mean the school is automatically out of compliance with ABA standards, noting a review committee "uses a totality of the circumstances" in making its decision. He said the school will be evaluated on new proposed bar passage rate standards if they are adopted by the ABA in February.

The proposed pass rates: 75 percent over a five-year period, 75 percent in at least three of the five years, or no more than 15 percentage points below the average state rate for first-time test-takers from ABA-approved schools in at least three of the five years.

Nancy Slonim, an ABA spokeswoman, said last week the U.S. Department of Education, which certifies the ABA as the accrediting agency for law schools, in recent years has been pushing for a "bright-line" standard on bar passage rates.

The ABA is scheduled to visit Charleston again in fall 2008; a decision about full accreditation won't be made until then. The S.C. Supreme Court, which regulates the legal profession in the state, allows only graduates of ABA-accredited schools to take the bar exam.