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  • Writer's pictureTommy Sangchompuphen

What FSU's Snub from the CFP Can Remind Bar Examinees About Relative Grading

I’m not a Florida State football fan. But I feel for those who are.

It didn’t matter that the Seminoles compiled an undefeated 13-0 record. Or that they won the ACC championship by relying on an impressive defensive performance. Or that they also did so with not just a back-up quarterback, but their third-string, back-up-to-a-back-up quarterback.

No, none of that mattered because the College Football Playoff Selection Committee decided Sunday that the Seminoles would become the first undefeated power conference champion to be left out of the CFP in its 10-year history. Instead, the committee selected Michigan, Washington, Texas, and Alabama (in that order) as the four semifinalists.

For the past 10 years, the CFP Selection Committee has been responsible for ranking and selecting the teams that will participate in the playoff. The committee's task is to evaluate the performance of teams throughout the college football season based on several factors, like a team’s win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, common opponents, and other relevant criteria (like, to Florida State's detrinment, the "unavailability of key players").

This relative ranking of teams is designed to ensure that the best and most deserving teams are selected for the playoff, or so the CFP Selection Committee contends. Instead of relying solely on a set formula or computer algorithm, the committee uses their expertise and judgment to assess the teams’ overall performance and strength.

This relative ranking by the CFP Selection Committee is not too different from what happens on the bar exam. On the bar exam, most jurisdictions, particularly jurisdictions that administer the Uniform Bar Exam, use what’s called "relative grading" when it comes to grading the Multistate Essay Exam and the Multistate Performance Test.

What is relative grading? According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners:

Relative grading training helps graders identify consistent standards in ranking papers and then apply those standards to put papers in piles according to their relative strength. The 1–6 scale used at the workshop simply means that a score of 6 is reserved for the best papers among all answers assigned to a particular grader. It is better than a 5, which is better than a 4, and so on, all the way to 1—a paper that is among the weakest papers. Relative grading means that in any group of answers, even if no single paper addresses all the points raised in an item, the strongest papers still deserve a 6 (using a 1–6 score scale). They do not have to be perfect nor necessarily deserve a true A or 100%. Using the same principles, a paper need not be completely devoid of content to get a 1 if the other papers are strong.

So when it comes to essay and MPT writing on the bar exam, it’s not about writing a good response. Rather, it’s about writing a better response than others. In Florida State’s case, it’s not important that the football team went undefeated the entire season. What’s more important, in the eyes of the Selection Committee, was how impressive those wins were compared to other teams—even other teams that lost games. I see you 👀, Alabama and Texas.)

When I meet with unsuccessful examinees, I sometimes hear from confused examinees who did not understand why they received a 1 or a 2 on an essay that they believed they aced, or why they received a 5 or a 6 on an essay they believed they tanked. Aside from their own misconceptions about the strengths or weaknesses of their responses, part of their confusion may have resulted from the fact that they are not considering the quality of their responses in relation to the quality of the other responses.

When comparing the relative grading of bar essays by examiners and the reliance on relative ranking of teams by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, there are several similarities:

First, both systems involve a process of comparing performances. Jurisdictions implementing relative grading compare bar exam essays against one another to ensure a standard level of competence among all examinees. Similarly, the CFP system compares college football teams based on their performances, records, and strengths to determine the top four teams.

Second, in both systems, there is an element of subjectivity. For the bar exams, graders may have subjective opinions that influence how they rank essays. In the CFP system, the Selection Committee’s subjective assessments of teams’ performances and strengths necessarily play a role in the rankings.

Third, the outcomes in both systems have significant implications. For law graduates, their performance on the bar exam determines their eligibility to practice law. In college football, the CFP rankings decide which teams get a chance to compete for the national championship.

Fourth, both systems are subjects of debate and controversy. Questions often arise about the fairness, accuracy, and transparency of the processes. Just ask the examinee who scored a 269 in a jurisdiction that requires a passing score of 270. Or ask Florida State. And even Georgia.

Finally, both systems attempt to minimize individual biases. The relative grading system is designed to standardize scores and reduce the impact of any single grader’s bias. The CFP Selection Committee aims to provide a balanced assessment through its diverse composition and deliberative process.

Like most systems, the bar exam and the college football playoffs will see significant overhauls. Sometimes systemic errors or persistent problems within a system only become apparent after long-term use, necessitating an overhaul to rectify these issues.

Next year, the College Football Playoffs will expand from four to 12 teams. Beginning with the July 2026 exam, the NCBE will begin administering the NextGen Bar Exam, with Maryland, Missouri, and Oregon already having announced that it will be the first jurisdictions (so far) to administer the new exam in July 2026.


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