March 22, 2011
Masters Forum: Optional Standardized Testing: The LSAT and the SAT
Posted by Sarah Lawsky

I want to address the proposal to remove the LSAT requirement for accreditation. Before I do, though, let me first adopt Christine's assumptions: "(1) that law schools should be accredited by some external body; (2) that this external body is going to be the ABA; (3) that no school outside of California can practically afford not to be accredited; and that (4) that the purpose for the ABA providing accreditation is for the protection and benefit of law students." There are very interesting conversations to be had about each of the assumptions, particularly the first two, but for the purposes of this post I accept them and proceed.

The ABA has proposed removing the current requirement that, to be accredited, "a law school shall require each applicant for admission as a first year J.D. student to take a valid and reliable admission test." This "valid and reliable" test is the LSAT. Note that the ABA has not proposed "kill[ing]" the LSAT; rather, it would leave the decision of whether to require the LSAT up to each individual law school.

To get a sense if what might happen if the LSAT becomes optional, I took a look at four-year colleges, which are not required to get standardized test scores from their applicants. Obviously there are many important differences between law school admissions and undergrad admissions, but this analysis still can, I believe, provide some insight.

First, the vast majority of undergraduate institutions still require applicants to take the SAT or ACT. There are about 2700 four-year colleges in the United States. Of those, according to one group, about 800, or 30%, do not require the SAT or the ACT (when I refer to the SAT throughout the rest of this post, I mean to include the ACT). Similarly, I suspect that most law schools would continue to require the LSAT. The LSAT is, after all, the single best predictor of first-year law school grades, and LSAT together with undergraduate GPA is an even better predictor. (The LSAT does not, in other words, measure only one's ability to prepare for the LSAT.) Moreover, because many law schools report only percentile data, any law school can choose to admit some people with very low LSAT scores without harming its ranking.

About half the schools that do not require the SAT (the "non-SAT schools") appear to have made that decision for reasons that do not obviously translate to the law school context.

SAT Doesn't Measure (22%): For some of the non-SAT schools, the SAT is not a terribly useful test, because the school is looking primarily for something that is not measured by the SAT. Specifically, about 7% of the non-SAT schools are art or music schools or conservatories, and another 10 to 15% are seminaries or religious schools, such as rabbinical training programs.

School for Everyone (24%): A little more than 20% of the non-SAT schools require the SAT only if a minimum GPA or class rank is not met, or only for out of state students. These are primarily state schools, such Cal State University campuses and many of the Ohio State campuses, whose mission is to provide access to higher education for a particular slice of state residents (in the case of Cal State, for example, the top 1/3 of California high school students). There is no such equivalent for law schools.

Other Standardized Tests (2%): Some of the most prestigious four-year institutions that do not require the SAT permit students to apply without the SAT only if they submit the scores of other tests, such as AP exams, IB exams, or SAT subject-area exams. Applicants to NYU, for example, may submit either the SAT, or the scores of three AP exams, or the scores of three SAT subject area exams. I am not aware of similar equivalent tests for law schools.

The remaining categories of non-SAT schools do suggest some interesting things for law schools.  

The Alternative Law School: Beware the Proxy

There are a handful of very prestigious colleges that require no standardized testing; some, though not all, of those seem to be intentionally alternative schools, such as Hampshire and Bennington. (The drop-out rate at Hampshire seems to be about 33%, and at Bennington, about 40%.) Analogously, a few law schools might choose to position themselves in the law school market as true alternatives.

Because the LSAT is the best predictor available for first-year grades, though, an excellent law school that wanted to position itself as a true alternative school would need to do extra work when admitting students without an LSAT score to make sure that the students would be qualified to do the work and have a chance of excelling at law school and beyond (by, for example, passing the bar and obtaining good jobs).

I would worry that admissions at such a school would favor undergrads from small private colleges who were, for example, able to work closely with faculty members and thus to get glowing, personalized recommendations, or to earn admission to other prestigious programs that could serve as proxies for law schools' deciding whether to admit them. In other words, personal connection and privilege might become more important, not less, at such a school. (As David Zaring puts it, the LSAT might be more meritocratic than the alternatives.)

For-Profit Institutions: Show Me the (Law Students') Money

Perhaps most worrying, about 11% of the schools that do not require the SAT or, indeed, any standardized test, are for-profit schools. The concern here is well put by Vivia Chen
My hunch is that the law schools that won't require LSATs will be either newly opened law schools looking for bodies or those rated at the bottom....I fear that schools that don't require the extra hurdle of the LSAT will attract even more applicants (probably some very weak ones, who shouldn't be in law school in the first place)--and that the cycle of bad schools and jobless graduates will escalate....
The example of the SAT appears to bear out this concern. Maybe everyone should be able to go to college (or maybe not). But should everyone be able to go to law school? There are many law schools now--so many that even someone with a relatively low LSAT score could find somewhere to attend. If someone is unable to score higher than, say, 130 on the LSAT, perhaps that person truly should not attend law school, especially given that the legal employment bubble has burst. On the other hand, maybe that decision should be left to the individual, not to the ABA.   

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