A Crack in the Dominance of the LSAT?

U. of Michigan will admit a small number of law students without the normal standardized test. Some see a significant shift. Some see an effort to game the rankings. Michigan sees neither.
September 30, 2008

While more and more colleges are questioning the use of the SAT, the use of standardized tests for law and medical school admissions is much more widely accepted. The American Bar Association, for example, views the use of admission tests as a key way to measure the suitability of law schools for accreditation. And as a result, the Law School Admission Test is routinely required by law schools.

As a result, more than a few eyebrows have been raised in the past few days by word that the University of Michigan's law school will start admitting a small share of its class without LSAT scores. Michigan says that the goal of its Wolverine Scholars program is to attract more students from its home state. But because Michigan's law school is considered to be among the best in the country and because the LSAT is so routinely a major part of law school admissions, the move is attracting scrutiny in the legal blogosphere.

By no means is Michigan abandoning the LSAT. The program is open only to Michigan undergraduates with a grade point average of at least 3.8. Sarah C. Zearfoss, assistant dean of the law school and its director of admissions, said that only about 5-10 students will be admitted this way, out of a class of 360, and that the primary goal is to attract more Michigan students. Michigan's law school is unusual among public law schools in its relatively low proportion of in-state residents -- 22 percent. (By comparison 70 percent of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law school are from the state; at the University of California at Los Angeles, the figure is 60 percent.)

Michigan's description of its new programs gives this explanation for why it is not requiring the LSAT: "The law school’s in-depth familiarity with Michigan undergrad curricula and faculty, coupled with significant historic data for assessing the potential performance of Michigan undergrads at the Law School, will allow us to perform an intensive review of the undergraduate curriculum of applicants, even beyond the typical close scrutiny we devote, and have confidence in our ability to assess an applicant’s academic strengths and the likelihood of outstanding engagement with the law school. For this select group of qualified applicants, therefore, we will omit our usual requirement that applicants submit an LSAT score."

Many law school bloggers have jumped to the conclusion that the law school is trying to improve its rankings in U.S. News by attracting students with very high grades but perhaps those students who wouldn't score well on the LSAT. In this scenario, Michigan gets more points for a higher GPA and its LSAT average could rise, too. (Both grade and LSAT medians are part of the magazine's methodology for law schools.) Michigan's move is being called "a new low in 'gaming' the U.S. News rankings," and there is much speculation that this is all about the magazine.

Zearfoss said there is no such strategy at work. The number of students who will be admitted this way is such a "fractional sliver" of the class that "this couldn't be a successful route for manipulating the rankings, even if we were so inclined," she said. Michigan has "well considered policy objectives" for the program, she said, adding that the law school has never made decisions based on "blind obeisance to rankings."

She said it was surprising to find so much skepticism at "one very small outside-the-box" move by a law school, especially when "many organizations are examining the appropriate use of standardized tests."

In fact some experts on standardized tests agree that what's significant here isn't the rankings, but the idea that a top law school would go on record saying that it's possible to make informed admissions decisions, even in a minority of cases, without the LSAT.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, called the move "a step in the right direction." He said he believes Michigan and other law schools don't even need such a high GPA to make such a shift, but that the principle involved is what's important. "Top-notch performance in a rigorous undergraduate curriculum is a better predictor of readiness for graduate school than any multiple-choice exam," he said.

He also said that, for all the concern among educators about the hysteria over SAT scores and the growth of the test-prep industry, things are even worse for professional school testing, which he said "makes the pre-SAT frenzy look mild -- nearly every person who sits for the LSAT, MCAT or GMAT has paid for some form of coaching."

Law schools that don't use the LSAT are shunned by the ABA. The refusal of the Massachusetts School of Law to require the LSAT was among several disputes that led to years of fighting with the ABA over its refusal to accredit the non-traditional law school. (Having lost in court, at this point the law school says it no longer wants ABA recognition and can operate without it.) The Massachusetts School of Law requires all applicants to have interviews and to take an essay test it has developed, and argues that its method helps to identify talented students who might not have earned great LSAT scores.

Lawrence R. Velvel, the dean of the school, said that the LSAT "is all about elitism -- it's about saying your law school is better than another law school because you have better LSAT scores." While Velvel said his law school does not track students' race and ethnicity, he said that well more than one fourth of students are from minority groups and that many students come from relatively modest economic backgrounds. The "interests of the public at large," he said, demand that law schools not rely on tests on which wealthy students have advantages.

Asked about Michigan's new program, he said, "I don't care what Michigan does because we've known for 20 years that we are right. I simply consider that Michigan is the first very small inroad in the rest of law schools to doing what we know is right, and what is increasingly taking place in fields other than law."

Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston who has served on many national committees on legal education, said it was important not to overstate the significance of Michigan's move. He noted that Bowdoin College went SAT-optional decades ago and for a long time, not many colleges followed, and even today, SAT-optional isn't the norm for highly competitive colleges. So Olivas predicted a "modest" impact.

Still, he said that just as Bowdoin "got people thinking," Michigan will also prompt other law schools to think about their approaches. "It's a good idea to have alternatives floating around," he said.

One person who thinks that Michigan is making a mistake is Ellen Rutt, associate dean for admissions at the University of Connecticut's law school and chair of the Law School Admissions Council, which runs the LSAT. She noted that the ABA requires a test and said that LSAT was "the gold standard."

In addition, Rutt questioned how Michigan would respond if many students with high grades applied, as could be possible at an institution as large as that university. "You have to discriminate among them somehow," she said. "I think they are losing something very crucial to the admissions process" for "comparability" and providing "greater precision in predicting first-year performance," she said.


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