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False Rank

June 28, 2006

One of the multitude of grievances regarding the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings of institutions of higher education is that there are ways to cheat -- something that no individual student would be able to do when applying to, say, law school, without facing some mighty consequences.

A researcher with the magazine says that officials with Baylor University School of Law have repeatedly submitted misleading answers to the magazine’s questions involving LSAT scores and grade-point averages of first-year students. Baylor officials, meanwhile, insist they’ve done nothing wrong.

“We will be scrutinizing their data much more closely,” said Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News. “We’ll make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

On two previous occasions, researchers with U.S. News were able to catch the misleading responses before publication. However, in the most recent rankings – in which Baylor Law placed 51st in the magazine's “Top 100 Schools” – U.S. News failed to catch the misreported data. The person who was responsible for catching the error has since left the publication for a new job.

Tom W. Bell, a professor of law at the Chapman University School of Law, in California, was the first to notice some discrepancies. He noted on his blog, Agoraphilia, that Baylor performed remarkably better in the 2007 U.S. News rankings than he expected, based on a model he created using data that schools report directly to the American Bar Association.  He calculates that Baylor should have actually ranked about 58. His model has proven to be on target with the publication’s rankings in a vast majority of cases.

“I’m just curious and I wanted to know how the rankings work,” Bell said Monday. “I’m kind of a geek when you put me in front of Excel.”

After crunching the numbers, Bell determined that it was likely that the magazine ranked Baylor law based not based on the median LSAT and GPA scores of the school’s entire first year class, but rather solely of the first year law students it admitted in the fall. 

For most schools, there would no difference in such numbers. But Baylor allows some students to enroll in the spring or summer preceding the first fall of their law school education.

“Judging from the data published in the ABA's official guide to law schools, Baylor lets students with relatively weak LSAT's and GPA's start early,” Bell wrote in his blog. “It admits students with relatively strong LSAT's and GPA's in the fall.”

“Clever people would have an incentive to throw a lot of data at U.S. News,” said Bell. “Then they could argue that it was the publication that failed to use the data correctly.”

Bell recently decided to contact Baylor Law regarding his concerns. In response, Leah Jackson, an associate dean of the school, responded with a letter that she also shared with Inside Higher Ed.

U.S. News uses the information we provide to them as it sees fit,” wrote Jackson. “We fully comply with our responsibility to accurately and thoroughly report the data that we submit to them; however, if they have in fact not used the data correctly pursuant to their proprietary formula, then we are not at fault.

“Second, all admissions data reported to U.S. News is taken directly from our admissions data reported to the ABA on our annual questionnaire. No changing or manipulating of admission data occurs between the time we report to the ABA and the time we complete the U.S. News survey.

“Third, we do not know how U.S. News uses the information it receives.  Your approximation of their formula indicates what might have happened, but we do not know that for sure…”

Jackson indicated that the onus for the mistake lies with U.S. News, since she says their online forms do not allow for proper clarification on the Internet for schools that operate on a calendar system like that of Baylor; instead, additional information must be submitted via facsimile.

Morse has labeled the arguments from Baylor, “lawyerly,” but he isn’t passing the buck.

“I’m not blaming this on Baylor,” said Morse. “The person at U.S. News shouldn’t have accepted [the school's numbers].” Morse said, too, that law schools and universities with the type of academic schedule Baylor uses have been told how to properly submit their information. 

Bell believes that the  publication’s rankings are given too much weight by applicants. “I want to see this process improve,” he said. “This is just frustrating.”

 

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