Are we asking about overall performance (pass rate) or the amount of work required to achieve a passing score?
Is the pass rate of the California bar exam lower? No.
Is more work required to pass the bar? Yes.
Historical Passage Rates
The pass rate on the 2016 July examination was undoubtedly low. Many have commented on the recent low performance on the bar by ABA law schools and in all schools in general. Some have asked if the exam is getting harder. If the bar exam were truly getting harder, we would expect the pass rate to drop over time.
However, the aggregate pass rate has remained the steady. There was a difference of 0.14% in the aggregate pass rate from 2000-2008 (47.66%) compared to 2009-2016 (47.8%). The year to year variability as we saw in July of 2016 averages out in the long term. Therefore, it would be incorrect to say that the California bar is getting harder on the grounds of passage rate.
The more difficult question to answer about the California bar is whether it requires more effort to pass now than in previous years. What would be the signs of such a "harder" test? We could expect longer essay responses that require more thorough analysis or broader coverage of legal issues to achieve a high score.
And that's exactly what has happened.
Effort required to pass is tough to measure without an analysis of all the essays written in a given year. However, the bar publishes two model answers for each essay as examples of top writing. BarProse measured the average wordcount of these model answers over time, by subject and sub-topic.
Most subjects show an increase in word count. This increase indicates that the top answers on the bar require more work in the discussion of issues. For example: Products Liability questions in Torts have increased nearly 30% in length (From July 2003 to February 2013). Using 2008 as a dividing line, Civil Procedure increased more than 27% and Evidence over 18%. Some subjects remained relatively steady such as Constitutional law (increasing only 6%).
Typically, the extra words appear in the analysis portion of the essays. Therefore BarProse recommends that current test takers focus on quality analysis of all applicable issues to achieve the highest score possible.
It is difficult to draw more specific conclusions from the model answers given limited nature of the data. However, the trend is clear. You must write more to achieve the highest score possible on the essay portion of the bar. Or to answer our initial question: Yes, students today must work harder and write more than in prior years.