Two of the most frequent questions to come up in social media groups for therapists involve licensing exams: What is the pass rate for [a specific license exam]? And, What is the passing score? Passing scores and pass rates are both good questions, and it’s easy to confuse them.
Sometimes people ask one when they mean the other. And sometimes people ask the question in a way that could mean either one, like “What’s the passing percentage?” Let’s clarify the difference, and answer both.
The passing score refers to how well someone needs to perform on an exam in order to pass it. The number or percentage of questions you need to get right in order to pass the test is the passing score.
For California BBS exams, passing scores haven’t been published since 2018. But you can find typical ranges here. As you’ll see, they generally hover around 70%.
For the NCMHCE, NCE, National MFT Exam, ASWB Clinical Level Exam, passing scores are typically set at the state level, though the exam developers set a recommended passing score to provide state boards a reference point. Many states simply default to the recommended passing score set by the exam developer. While there is variability among tests, and among exam cycles for the same test, passing scores for each of these also tend to hover in the 70-75% range.
A fair amount of mythology floats around about how passing scores for license exams are set. It’s actually a deeply complex statistical process, done by analyzing examinee performance both overall and on each individual test question. It is not simply the average score for that exam cycle, nor is there a particular predetermined passing rate that developers try to create through how they set the passing score. This process is problematic, for reasons I’ll cover in a future post. But the people who do this process work diligently to do it as well as they can. The passing score goes up a bit when an exam is easier, and goes down a bit when the exam is harder. In this way, the actual knowledge base required to pass the test should be similar from one cycle of an exam to the next.
Among any group of people taking a test, a certain percentage of that group passes the test, while the rest fail. The percentage of people taking a test who pass it is considered the pass rate. Within a single cycle of a single exam, the pass rate negatively correlates with passing scores: The higher the passing score is, naturally, the fewer people there will be who pass it.
However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this same correlation applies across cycles of an exam, or when comparing one exam to another. Remember that the passing score for an exam is set higher when an exam is easier, as noted above. So for one test cycle, the passing score on the California MFT Law & Ethics Exam could be 33 out of 50 scored items, and for the next cycle it could be 37, and the pass rate could be the same across those two cycles.
Pass rates are often reported in weird and problematic ways. For example, accredited graduate programs might survey their alumni to ask about exam performance — but of course those who have failed aren’t usually eager to report that fact back to their programs. When pass rate data is linked to accreditation, the programs themselves may be incentivized to conveniently leave students who failed out of their data. So you wind up with laughable self-report data like this. Gosh, there sure are a lot of 100%s on there!
The cleanest and most reliable data tends to come from state boards and exam developers themselves, who can provide data that reflects the full group of examinees in a particular time period. California routinely publishes (good quality) pass rate data for its masters-level professions. This data shows that pass rates have fluctuated wildly in recent years, particularly for the state’s MFT Clinical Exam.
There’s a decent argument to be made that California’s pass rates have fluctuated so wildly because OPES, the organization that is responsible for setting passing scores, actually hasn’t varied those passing scores enough. But as noted above, exam developers typically aren’t targeting a particular pass rate when they set a passing score. So wild fluctuations in pass rates are possible. Passing rates for first-time examinees on both state and national exams tend to be in the 70-80% range. Indeed, one reason why these statistics often get confused is because the percentages for passing score and pass rate can be similar.
Using the data
I know some examinees want as much data as they can get their hands on, in an effort to determine when to take the test to maximize their odds of passing. Unfortunately, so much of this data comes out after an exam cycle is complete that it’s typically not worth your time to pursue an “easier” cycle for any particular test. Even if you hear from other folks taking a test that the passing score has come down, remember that that’s an indication the test itself is harder.
License exams are flawed for a number of reasons. But you can get through yours. If you have a licensing exam in your future, go kick its ass. And if your exam just happens to be a California master’s level law and ethics test, well, you’re in the right place.