ABA proposes eliminating standardized tests for law school

In April, the American Bar Association’s Council on Legal Education, which accredits 196 schools across the US, proposed to eliminate a requirement that accredited schools use the Law School Admission Test or some equivalent to “valid and reliable” standardized test in their admissions process. The ABA council clarified that law schools “would remain free to require a test if they wish.”

If accepted, the proposal would take effect for law school classes beginning in fall 2023.

The LSAT is by far the most widely used assessment for law school admissions, and any aspiring lawyer can attest to the weight a good LSAT score can have on a school’s decision. But as consensus builds for a re-evaluation of the role of standardized testing in other areas of higher education, the debate over its benefits has reached law school admissions. Opinion is sharply divided—and impassioned on both sides.

Proponents of the change say it would improve diversity and equity in law school enrollment and give institutions the flexibility to experiment with more holistic admissions policies.

Andrew Cornblatt, the dean of admissions at Georgetown Law, said that if the ABA’s proposal to eliminate the standardized test mandate is approved, he has “every expectation” that Georgetown would become test optional.

“As a general matter, the LSAT is helpful, but it’s not determinative for every applicant,” he said. “I’m excited about this. I think it’s a real change in the way we’ve done things.”

But opponents worry that doing away with a common standardized assessment could make it harder for law schools to ensure they’re accepting applicants who can succeed, during their studies and afterward.

Kellye Testy, president of the Law School Admissions Council, which designs and administers the LSAT, said the ABA’s proposal is controversial because the LSAT is more predictive of success in school than other standardized tests, including the SAT—almost 10 percent more predictive, according to LSAC data.

“I don’t think we should experiment on students. I think we should do what works, and we know the LSAT works,” she said.

The LSAT is also a fairly accurate predictor of whether a student will pass the bar exam after graduation, according to a 2019 study by Law School Transparency, a nonprofit education advocacy organization. The study found that students who score in the mid-140s and below are at a significantly higher risk of failing the bar than those with scores above 150.

“The LSAT is at least some measure saying, ‘Is this applicant likely to pass the bar?’” said Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Failing Law Schools. “If we’re going to take a student’s money, we have to believe that student can successfully achieve their goals. That will justify the economic investment they’re making.”

That investment can be a hefty one; on average, three years of law school tuition costs over $130,000.

Aaron Taylor, executive director of AccessLex’s center for legal education excellence, argues that law schools assign too much weight to the LSAT’s “predictive value.” He said eliminating the standardized test requirement would be a good “first step” toward encouraging law schools to be more flexible and holistic in their approach to admissions.

“This is not a matter of whether the LSAT has value, because it does. It’s a matter of how much value it has, and whether the way it’s used in the admissions process aligns with that,” he said. “I see [the proposal] as a mechanism to allow law schools to engage in experimentation and innovation in how they evaluate applicants.”

This isn’t the first time the ABA has recommended doing away with testing requirements. In 2018, the association put forth the exact same amendments, but the proposal was withdrawn after receiving “considerable and organized opposition,” according to an ABA memo.

Taylor said that this time around, there is “absolutely more appetite” for a test-optional policy.

“The pandemic prompted people to really consider what we’re doing and why we’re doing it like this,” he said. “The appetite has changed, and frankly, our country has changed.”

Representatives from the ABA declined to comment on the record for this article.

Riding a Test-Optional Wave

The proposal is the latest in a wave of test-optional experiments across higher education in recent years, especially since the pandemic made in-person test taking difficult. According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, the number of four-year undergraduate institutions with test-optional policies has nearly doubled since spring 2020. A list published by FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing shows that by this fall, more than 75 percent of all colleges will not require applicants to submit standardized test scores.

But the trend toward eliminating standardized test requirements has been slower to catch on at professional schools.

“At the law school level, it’s a little different from undergrad,” Cornblatt said. “These tests, particularly the LSAT, are predictive and geared toward measuring how students will do in this particular field when they get here.”

Some institutions have added flexibility to the traditional, LSAT-focused law school admissions process in recent years. The University of Arizona Law School became the first to accept the GRE in lieu of the LSAT in 2016; The following year, more high-profile law schools, including Northwestern and Georgetown, did the same. In 2019, the ABA adopted a policy allowing institutions to accept the GRE as “equivalent” to the LSAT.

Equitable Access

Taylor said that when law schools place too much value on the LSAT as a measure of student worth, it can lead to less diversity. According to a 2019 study that Taylor authored, only 1,000 of every 1,960 Black applicants who applied to law school in 2016–17 were admitted, compared to 1,000 of every 1,204 white applicants.

“Law schools often overemphasize the LSAT’s value and accord more weight to the test than is justified,” Taylor said. “That misuse of the LSAT as a tool ends up disadvantaging people from underrepresented backgrounds, whether those are racial and ethnic minorities or people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The problems with the LSAT, Taylor said, are similar to those raised in discussions about the value of the SAT: that it often privileges applicants who can afford expensive test prep, most of whom are white.

The LSAC’s Testy believes the opposite is true: that the LSAT is a way for law schools to increase their equity and diversity by putting applicants on an even playing field.

“The LSAT is designed to reward potential, not privilege,” she said. “GPAs, recommenders, what school you went to—those things tend to have more bias in them than a well-validated test.”

Taylor says he’s heard that argument before, but it doesn’t align with the data.

We’re not talking about outliers here. We’re not talking about an anecdote of a poor kid who took the test and got an opportunity,” he said. “We’re talking about the macro picture, where you can look at thousands and thousands of law school applicants, divvy them up by subgroup—whether it’s racial, ethnic or socioeconomic—and see profound disparities.”

Cornblatt said Georgetown’s decision to accept the GRE helped “widen the guardrails” for potential applicants, and since 2019 the law school’s applicant pool has become more diverse in terms of racial, sociological and educational background.

“My job is to enroll an orchestra, not just violinists. We have plenty of violinists,” he said. “GRE test takers are playing instruments I’ve never heard of, and they’re adding to the texture of the class.”

Cornblatt believes allowing law schools to become test optional will have an even more dramatic effect on the diversity of law school applicants nationwide than accepting the GRE had on Georgetown’s applicant pool.

“There’s a segment of this population who I believe are incredibly talented and would make great lawyers, but many of those people aren’t applying to law schools because the testing is a barrier,” Cornblatt said. “This will give an opportunity to those students that they otherwise would not have.”

Accountability Concerns

Tamanaha said his main concern about the ABA’s proposal is that it would remove a measure of accountability for schools and make them more likely to admit “unqualified” students in order to maximize their revenue.

“I’m not concerned about the vast majority of schools, which, given some more flexibility, will still make decisions that try to identify capable students,” he said. “[But] schools that are really about maintaining their economic solvency more so than admitting students who will pass the bar can take advantage of this situation … it will provide them with a way to dig deep into the pool for applicants who otherwise, if there were a concrete qualitative measure like the LSAT, would be a problematic decision.”

There are other means of ensuring law schools prepare students for success in the legal profession; For example, the ABA’s accreditation standard 316 specifies that institutions must show that at least 75 percent of graduates ultimately pass the bar—or be found noncompliant.

But if the ABA’s plan is to focus more on student outcomes postgraduation, Tamanaha says its recent track record doesn’t bode well. Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School has been found noncompliant with standard 316 for five years in a row; Its bar-passage rate fell from 66 percent in 2017 to 59.5 percent in 2022. Yet last month, the ABA granted a three-year extension to the school.

Cooley’s median LSAT score in 2019 was 145—about the threshold where data show students are more likely to fail the bar exam.

“If the solution to remove [the testing requirement] is the ABA bar-passage standard, that solution isn’t one we can be confident in given that they don’t appear to be enforcing it,” Tamanaha said.

“There have been law schools that have, by all indications, couched exploitation in the guise of opportunity,” Taylor conceded. “But we can’t dictate an entire system based on the possible actions of a small group of schools.”

Tamanaha said that ultimately, he’s not sure what good removing the LSAT mandate would do, but that the risks for increased student exploitation are apparent.

“To me, the benefits are unclear, the necessity of this is unclear, but there’s clarity about the potential downside,” Tamanaha said.

For Taylor, the opposite is true: he said the ABA’s proposal, while a “small move,” could only help make legal education more accessible.

“I think there will be law schools that will engage in some rigorous experimentation and some sincere attempts to broaden access to their degrees. And I certainly don’t think it will hurt the demographics,” he said. “All I see is upside.”

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