ABA Gives Law Schools Go-Ahead to Use GRE

About one-third of law schools already accept it. Will the rest now follow suit?

December 6, 2021

The American Bar Association announced Tuesday that it will permit law schools to require the Graduate Record Examination instead of the Law School Admission Test for admissions decisions.

The Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar made the decision, which does not require approval from any other body of the ABA.

“The council also voted to permit law schools to accept GRE test scores from applicants in lieu of an LSAT score,” said an official description of council activities. “The council reminds schools that the use of test scores to make admissions decisions is subject to Standard 501(a)’s requirement that a school adhere to ‘sound admission policies and practices,’ and that a law school may not admit applicants who do not ‘appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.’ The council also reminds schools that although [a rule] does not prescribe the weight that law schools must give to an applicant’s test score, it does require law schools to use admissions tests in a manner consistent with the test developer’s current guidelines regarding the proper use of the results.”

The ruling is a major victory for the Educational Testing Service, which operates the GRE and which has been fighting for the ABA’s recognition, especially since 2016, when the University of Arizona law school started to accepting GRE scores in addition to LSAT scores from applicants. The move was so controversial that the Law School Admission Council threatened to kick the university out of the organization. Arizona started to allow the GRE to be used after it studied whether the test was as effective as the LSAT at predicting student success. Arizona found that it was.

So did a number of other law schools, among them Harvard University in 2017. Today more than 70 law schools allow applicants to submit GRE scores. But they make up only a minority of law schools. Other law schools have decided that they prefer the LSAT or they don’t want to do a study of how their students do with the LSAT and GRE. One reason that some law schools have been anxious to offer the GRE is the possibility of recruiting more students, particularly those who may not be sure about going to law school.

Although many people imagine that the LSAT is a test of constitutional law or torts, it isn’t.

“The purpose of the LSAT is to test the skills necessary for success in the first year of law school,” says a website by the Law School Admission Council about the LSAT. “Those skills include reading comprehension, reasoning, and writing, and the test results help admission decision makers and candidates alike gain valuable insight as to law school readiness.”

The ABA commissioned a study on whether the GRE could be used for law school admissions. The study report was released in September and said that existing research was “an insufficient basis for a clear recommendation that the GRE and LSAT can be used interchangeably and successfully for admissions to any/all law schools.”

The report also said that “if certain plausible assumptions are made, however, we think it is possible that the GRE and LSAT might be used defensibly and interchangeably for law school decisions.”

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Further, the report said, “both the GRE and the LSAT showed a similar level of predictive validity when used alone or combined with” undergraduate grades.

Alberto Acereda, associate vice president of global higher education at ETS, said, “Today’s decision by the ABA to reinforce and endorse the use of the GRE in law school admissions is a testament to the value of the test in legal education. We look forward to continuing to bring innovation and transformation to legal education, working alongside law schools to enrich and diversify pools of future legal practitioners.”

A spokesman for the Law School Admission Council made clear that the LSAT was the council’s preferred criterion for law school admissions.

“There are obviously significant questions about the content validity and reliability of the GRE for law school admission, but we are not going to second-guess this decision,” he said. “The council has been allowing law schools to accept the GRE for at least five years, and yet it still amounts to only 1 percent of all matriculants. We will continue to innovate to ensure that the LSAT remains the gold standard for law school admission, and we will deliver unparalleled programs and services specifically designed to attract and help diverse, talented individuals succeed.”

Jeff Thomas, executive director of legal programs of Kaplan (which helps students prepare for either test), said the ABA decision “may finally open the floodgates for this exam to truly be a viable alternative to the LSAT.”

But he noted some caveats. “Until now, only a trickle of applicants have taken the GRE route, but this latest news might turn that into at least a steady stream if every law school—right now it’s only about one-third of all law schools—says that not only will they accept GRE scores, but also that applicants who submit GRE scores will not be at an admissions disadvantage compared to applicants who submit LSAT scores. That’s been a concern among some applicants, we know, and a prior Kaplan survey among law schools found that even among law schools that accept scores from both tests, many have a preference for the LSAT. If there is a perceived bias, it’s hard to see how the GRE will truly take off.

“Over all, we are glad the ABA has finally made a ruling on this issue, which will bring some much-needed clarity to both law schools and prospective students. It will likely take a few admissions cycles to really measure its impact, though.”

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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