ABA rethinking LSAT requirement Any change to test is still years away

By Danny Jacobs

The Daily Record Newswire

BALTIMORE, MD -- Approximately 760 people in Maryland took the Law School Admissions Test on Saturday and Monday, the last chance for many to get scores they need to submit to law schools for admittance into the Class of 2014.

Five years from now, however, candidates for the Class of 2019 might choose not to take the test that has started the law school process for generations of lawyers. An American Bar Association committee reviewing law school accreditation standards has voted twice in straw polls essentially to remove the LSAT as a requirement.

But even if that recommendation is adopted -- and that day is still well into the future -- legal educators say the LSAT will not suddenly disappear. While it may not reflect the abilities of atypical students, they say, it remains a useful standardized tool in admissions.

"There are just many, many students who are 'typical,'" said Jeffrey Zavrotny, director of admissions at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "So you ask: What is their GPA? What is their major? What is their LSAT? If you eliminate one of those factors, it makes it difficult."

To say the ABA is attempting to eliminate the LSAT is convenient shorthand, but the real story is a bit more complex. It begins with the ABA's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, the country's official accreditation agency for legal education as authorized by the U.S. Department of Education.

The section is the only higher-education accrediting agency that requires a standardized admissions test, said Hulett H. "Bucky" Askew, director of the section. While medical schools across the country use the Medical College Admission Test, for example, they are not required to do so by the governing Liaison Committee on Medical Education, Askew said.

The LSAT was specifically required for accredited law schools until the mid-1990s, Askew said, when the language was changed to require a "valid and reliable test." The standards do not require applicants to reach a specific score, and schools do not have to take the test results into account in admissions, said Donald J. Polden, chairman of the ABA's Standards Review Committee, which has been reviewing all accrediting standards since 2008.

"The LSAT has been the only entrance exam found to be valid and reliable for the purpose of predicting success in law school," said Polden, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law in California.

The Law School Admission Council is not taking a position on the ABA's study of the standardized test requirement, according to Jim Vaseleck, senior director of public affair and deputy general counsel.

Both Polden and Askew said the average LSAT scores can be considered part of the "basic consumer information" all law schools are required to publish to be accredited.

"The overarching duty is not to admit people you don't believe can be successful in school," Polden said.

Reasons to Review

But Polden also cited several factors in the committee's move toward eliminating the standardized test requirement. More law schools are asking for temporary waivers of the test requirement. The University of Michigan Law School and the University of Illinois College of Law, perhaps most notably, have pilot programs allowing qualifying students at their own undergraduate schools to apply without taking the LSAT.

The Illinois Law Early Action Program, or iLEAP, uses factors including undergraduate GPA and ACT score, a standardized college entrance exam popular in the Midwest and similar to the SAT.

Rising college seniors accepted into the program receive half-tuition scholarships for all three years in law school, according to Paul Pless, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid. Since the program targets students who have the law school as their first choice, iLEAP is akin to early decision for undergraduate schools. And, like early admission, it can also keep promising students from looking elsewhere.

"It helps us recruit the very best students from the University of Illinois undergraduate school," he said. "We understand what grades mean at Illinois for undergraduates."

Seventy students applied for iLEAP's first class: a dozen were admitted and accepted and are now in their first year, Pless said. Six of those students finished in the top third of the entire class for the semester, and iLEAP students posted an average GPA of 3.4, he said.

"The LSAT is a valuable tool, but for this group of students we can make a good decision without it," he said.

Another reason for the ABA committee review is the longstanding complaint that the LSAT favors white students, those in the middle to upper socioeconomic classes and those who are taking it while still in college.

"Relaxing the requirement of LSAT scores to get into law school might permit greater flexibility in creating a more diverse incoming class," Polden said.

The Society of American Law Teachers has been critical of the use of LSAT scores in the U.S. News and World Report rankings for that very reason.

"Because LSAT scores figure so prominently into the computation of a school's rank, few schools are willing to compromise their ranking by accepting 'nontraditional' students whose merit is measured in ways other than a single test score," the organization wrote in a statement last year urging a boycott of the rankings.

University of Baltimore Law's ranking, for example, dropped from the third tier to the fourth in 2009 when U.S. News changed its ranking system to include credentials of all entering students, not just full-time students

Robert Morse, who heads the U.S. News rankings, responded that the publication uses the median LSAT score, which lessens the effect of admitting students with lower scores.

Morse wrote last month that U.S. News is following the ABA's actions but does not plan to remove LSAT scores from its rankings equation.

"It's likely that a very large proportion of law students will continue to take and submit the LSAT, even if it's made optional at some schools," he wrote. "With that in mind, U.S. News will continue to conduct the annual law school rankings, and the LSAT will remain a heavily weighted factor."

Designed as an equalizer

The irony is the LSAT was developed in part to make law schools more diverse following World War II, particularly as the GI Bill made higher education a possibility for a whole new class of Americans.

"The reason for development was to bring equity into the process," Askew said.

But the test has "morphed into something completely different," according to Lawrence Velvel, founder and dean of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. The school, which is not accredited by the ABA, is one of the few in the country that does not require the LSAT for admissions; instead, it relies on personal essays, in- person interviews and other factors.

"People have offered us their LSAT scores, but we don't look at them," Velvel said.

Velvel developed the school as one for working-class people, many of whom could not afford law school even with good LSAT scores. Minorities make up more than one-third of the student body, he said.

"Why should they be excluded from law school because they don't do well on this test?" he asked.

While the lack of ABA accreditation means the Massachusetts School of Law must devote a page on its website listing the states that will admit its graduates to the bar, Velvel said the school's admission process has worked.

"We wanted to maximize the chance that we will take students that will succeed in law school and in the professional world," he said. "People still wash out as lawyers. They don't wash out at law school."

Velvel said four-fifths of his school's graduates ultimately pass the bar but he did not have any other statistical information about students, including the percentage who do graduate. He called the ABA accreditation process subjective and said the school's "value added is extremely high." Tuition for full-time students is about $15,000 annually.

"We have not gone back to seek ABA accreditation a second time," he said. "And we never will."

But even Velvel does not see law schools dropping the LSAT from admissions should the test become voluntary. The ABA Standards Review Committee hopes to take a final vote on the matter by the summer, Polden said, and then submit its recommendation to the council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. The section will hold a public hearing, after which the council can adopt the committee's recommendation or send it back to be reworked.

"We're at least two years away on the final action of this particular recommendation," said Askew, the section's consultant.

Polden said Santa Clara's admissions process would not change; the school typically gets 5,000 applicants for 300 spots.

"We need all of the information we can get to make our decisions," he said.

At the University of Maryland School of Law, the LSAT is one of a dozen factors used to decide admissions, according to Connie Beals, executive director of the office of admissions and student recruiting.

"It's a pretty solid process because we have great students," she said.

Any changes to admissions would have to be approved by the faculty, but Beals said any changes to the process would eventually become seamless.

Zavrotny, of UB Law, said it might take a few of the leading law schools to make the LSAT voluntary before the entire system changes. But it also might take prospective students to change how they perceive the LSAT, too.

"It's a little disingenuous for applicants to say rankings are not important," he said. "When a student asks me for our test score median, they are making a quality decision based on the median."

LSAT as a predictor

Periodic studies by the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, have found the test to be a slightly better predictor of first-year law school performance than undergraduate GPA, although the combination of the two is an even better predictor.

The studies look for a statistical relationship between the scores. A correlation coefficient of 1 represents a perfect, positive relationship between variables.

The most recent study, issued in 2009 and analyzing two years of data from 165 law schools, found an average correlation coefficient of 0.32 between LSAT scores and first-year achievement, compared to an average of 0.28 between GPA and first-year achievement. When LSAT and GPA are combined, the correlation coefficient rises to 0.46.

Published: Fri, Feb 18, 2011

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