Big changes seem to be happening in the world of postsecondary education.

A number of degree opportunities are gradually moving from expensive classroom campus settings to correspondence and online programs. Even some of the big name schools are getting into the act.

One must ask if these new types of educational delivery systems are maintaining high standards, or are comparative results demonstrating a downward trend in the competency of graduates?

There are a number of ways to look at this. For this column, I chose the results of the July 2018 California Bar Examination to measure the effectiveness of various learning modalities.

Lawyers are unique in that there are many academic roads available in California for people to join the legal profession — ranging from American Bar Association approved Ivy League programs to unaccredited correspondence schools. Some applicants may not even need to attend law school if certain requirements are met.

The key to joining this age-old profession is based on a candidate’s ability to pass a grueling three-day examination, (now two days since July ‘17), which consists of both essay and multiple choice (known as the Multistate) questions.

Despite reducing the test time by one day, according to the State Bar of California, the July results still indicate a downward trend in scores, which is also happening nationally. This fact applies to both traditional and nontraditional methods of learning.

Last July, only 40.7 percent of applicants passed the Bar Examination for the first time. Results of the Multistate part fell to a 34-year low. The pass rate in California fell by 8.9 percentage points from July 2017 to July 2018.

Broken down by types of schools, the general results could be seen as somewhat predictable for the mid-year exam. California ABA school students had a first-time pass rate of 64 percent. California accredited (but not ABA) only had a 16 percent pass rate. Unaccredited correspondence schools dropped to 11 percent, yet unaccredited distance learning was almost double that of correspondence schools with a passing rate of 23 percent.

So which type of school performed best? From the numbers, it’s easy to conclude that traditional upper-crust ABA-approved law schools, with six times the passage rate of unaccredited correspondence schools, wins hands down. But statistics can be deceiving.

First of all, factors for consideration are not equal. The top schools generally attract the top students. Lesser institutions tend to gather those who are employed full-time and returning to school later in life, or those whose previous performances may have not been stellar examples of academic excellence.

And what about the more than one-third of students from the top-tiered institutions who didn’t pass, or the 11 percent from the nontraditional, do-it-yourself, home study places that did? While the odds are that students who come from the elite schools are more likely to pass, it’s still no guarantee of success.

So what can we conclude from this small observational study? For one thing, test scores (at least in the legal profession and probably elsewhere), are declining.

Secondly, people learn differently and respond accordingly in various educational settings. Some, especially those with a superior intellect and real world experience, may do just fine in non-traditional modes.

Others may need more nurturing and support that usually are found in a standardized classroom setting. Teamwork and reinforcement from fellow students, along with decades old library services, can be real advantages as well.

Non-traditionalists might counter-argue that with the facts that sophistication of today’s Internet services allow plenty of support for those who know how to seek it, and at a much lower cost.

So, based on this brief sampling, I’d say the jury is still out on modern modes of learning. More data need to be gathered. My educated guess is that when all is said and done, it’s not the type of learning environment, but the quality, dedication and preparation of students that really make the difference in determining scholarly success.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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