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Killing the LSAT in the Name of Diversity Won’t Cure the Problem

June 24, 2022, 10:00 AM

You have to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease.

This spring, the American Bar Association made an eye-popping proposal. In April, its strategic review committee, which accredits law schools, issued a memo directing “the elimination of the requirement that law schools use a valid and reliable admission test though law schools of course remain free to require a test if they wish.”

Oh, the proverbial slippery slope. In 2021, after years of resistance, the ABA finally gave the green light for law schools to substitute the LSAT with the GRE. And now it’s axing all testing requirements for law school admission.

Has the ABA gone wild? And for what purpose?

Although not explicitly stated, the proposal is aimed at fixing the dearth of diversity in the profession.

As the New York Times reports, this “follows a trend at some elite colleges and universities, which have waived standardized testing requirements amid criticism that wealthier students have advantages such as the ability to afford prep coaching.” And the LSAT in particular has been singled out as a culprit. In a 2020 NYU Law Review article, the test was called “a significant barrier to entry with disparate negative impacts on women, racial minorities, individuals of low socioeconomic status, and, perhaps most egregiously, those with disabilities.”

While the LSAT might be a flawed instrument, is admitting J.D. candidates without it the path to a more equitable profession? And what are the implications of this test-free policy? I hope there’s not an underlying assumption that people of color can’t hack the fearsome LSAT.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a test apologist. As someone who’s suffered through the SAT, LSAT, and the New York bar exam, I regard standardized testing to be an exclusive form of torture reserved for the privileged class. But compared with other standardized tests, the LSAT is quite rational. It actually tests you on skills like analytical reasoning and logic that are critical to law school survival.

Indeed, the ABA memo acknowledges that the LSAT has its merits. It calls the test “a fair measure of first-year law school performance and correlates well with the final law school grade-point average, rank in class, and performance on bar examinations.”

While there’s room for debate whether first-year law school performance and grades are relevant in the long run—I mean, who doesn’t know rainmakers who were mediocre law students?—can anyone seriously argue against the necessity of bar passage? And if the LSAT can screen out those who are unlikely to pass the bar, isn’t that enough to justify its relevance?

Not to be harsh, but if you totally bomb on the LSAT, perhaps it’s a sign that you shouldn’t waste your time and money in pursuing a legal career? Just asking.

Frank Wu, the former chancellor of University of California, Hastings College of Law, thinks I might be giving the LSAT too much credence. “Like other standardized tests, it has limitations and can be abused,” said Wu, who’s now president of Queens College, City University of New York. “The scientists who design these instruments do not claim what we imagine, that these scores are a highly accurate be all and end all.”

But what concerns me about eliminating the LSAT is that it suggests that minority students might lack the chops for entry into the profession. Though anti-testers will likely argue that the LSAT and other standardized tests are freighted with social/economic baggage—and that’s undoubtedly true—isn’t it also possible to read it as throwing in the towel that students of color can master the art of the test?

On so many levels, the messaging is confused, and the priority is wrong. “There is a gap in performance for some racial groups, but the idea of telling people not to take the test makes no sense,” said Sarah Zearfoss, the head of admissions at the University of Michigan Law School. “The solution is to learn the test. You can take classes to train your analytical skills.”

I totally agree. Speaking as someone for whom logical reasoning was a foreign concept—hey, I was an English major—I can tell you it took enormous effort to master those skills. But it’s doable.

So far, there’s also scant evidence that throwing out standardized tests is the panacea. According to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news site that reports on education, the rate of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students grew by only 1% based on a 2021 study of 100 colleges and universities that adopted a test-optional admissions policy.

That result doesn’t surprise Kellye Testy, president and chief executive of the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT. “When you take away something that’s a nationally validated measure like the LSAT, what becomes important is where you went to school, the courses you take, your extracurricular activities, which all entails more bias,” she told me.

While you’d expect Testy to be in favor of the LSAT, her skepticism is shared by consultant Anna Ivey, a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, who thinks it’s time to ditch the test. “As a former admissions officer, I’d love to take a holistic approach. But going test optional won’t necessarily result in more diversity,” she said. “It takes institutional commitment to diversity. And it means taking a harder look at who’s privileged.”

Ah, the privilege thing. Well, that should be a cinch to dissect. All things considered, I guess it’s easier to trash the LSAT and call it a day.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com