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Shaking Up Law School Admissions

Georgetown and Northwestern announce they will accept GRE, not just LSAT. But ABA may move in ways that limit the option and that some fear would impede diversity efforts.

August 8, 2017
 
Northwestern's law school

Harvard Law School announced in March that it would start to accept the Graduate Record Examination for admissions, not just the traditionally required Law School Admission Test. At the time, only one other law school -- the University of Arizona's -- had such a policy. Many wondered if the move by Harvard, given its stature in legal education, would prompt others to follow.

That question may have been answered Monday, when the law schools of both Georgetown and Northwestern Universities announced that they too would now accept the GRE, a test from the Educational Testing Service. Both Georgetown and Northwestern are highly regarded law schools and have no shortage of applicants.

But even as the announcements give momentum to the test-choice movement, they come at a time when the American Bar Association may clamp down on such experimentation. Currently the ABA requires law schools to either use the LSAT or another test the law school has determined to have "validity" in predicting student success. Arizona, Georgetown, Harvard and Northwestern all say that they have done such studies, and so comply with ABA rules.

The ABA is, however, considering a rules change that would permit law schools to use alternatives to the LSAT only if the ABA has determined the validity of the alternative test -- something the ABA has yet to do with any test besides the LSAT. And many law deans -- including some who have not moved beyond the LSAT -- are angry that the ABA (with backing from the Law School Admission Council, which runs the LSAT) may limit their options going forward.

The Tests

While the LSAT was designed for use in law school admissions, it may have left itself open to challenge because its sections -- on reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, logical reasoning and writing -- are not at all specific to the law or legal education. Similarly, the GRE is used in a range of fields, many of which require extensive communication, reasoning and other skills that are important to law schools. (The GRE also tests mathematics, which is not covered by the LSAT, and which some proponents of the GRE argue is important for all professionals.)

Some law school admissions leaders see the GRE as a way to attract applicants who might be considering other forms of graduate education, and may be intrigued by law school, but who don't want prepare for another test.

Many have seen the GRE historically as more "friendly" to test takers on logistics. The LSAT has recently added times that one can take the exam, but it remains easier for people to find a time and place to take the GRE.

Jeff Thomas is executive director of pre-law programs at Kaplan, which has services both for those preparing for the GRE and the LSAT. He said that he believes the GRE has "forced the hand" of the LSAT, making it a bit more flexible. "And students benefit from having more freedom," he said.

The announcements from Northwestern and Georgetown show that the push for more options on testing has momentum. "The ball is rolling down the hill," he said.

At the same time, he cautioned against assuming a massive change in test-taking patterns in the near term. Some prospective law students are looking at a bunch of highly ranked law schools. If a few more add the GRE option, some may pick only those law schools, he said.

But many prospective students apply with geography in mind, he said. They live in Chicago or Washington, or have decided they want to build their careers there, and will apply to several law schools in a single metro area. These applicants are unlikely to stop taking the LSAT until there is a critical mass of law schools in a region that don't require it, he said.

The popular legal blog Above the Law also sees significance in the moves announced Monday.

"Is it time for the LSAC, the entity that’s held a monopoly on law school admissions testing for years, to start freaking out yet? The answer, of course, is yes," Joe Patrice wrote in a Monday post. "The LSAT monopoly over law school admissions was, like most monopolies, fraught with inefficiencies. There aren’t enough testing centers? Who cares, we’re a monopoly! There aren’t enough administrations throughout the year? Who cares, we’re a monopoly!"

Kellye Y. Testy, the new president and CEO of the LSAC and former dean of the law school at the University of Washington, said the news from Georgetown and Northwestern was "of concern to us."

“We believe in innovation and experimentation and certainly anything that would open access and improve legal education and the profession," she said. "But we are concerned with how quickly schools are jumping to the GRE without any reliable studies of what it means." She said that the validity studies that the law schools have cited are "small," and "we would like them to take a little more time to study what this means."

She said the LSAC was open to changing the LSAT in response to concerns of law school leaders. Asked about the GRE mathematics section, she said that "if it’s mathematics that people feel that they need, it’s something we could test."

Testy also said that the current system assures quality control, and that applicants find out from the test if they can succeed in law school. All of the law schools that conducted validity studies to start offering a GRE option said that was specifically the question they examined, and that they found GRE scores are as good or better than the LSAT at predicting student success.

The ABA’s Possible Rules Changes

The ABA’s various governing bodies may consider the rules change this fall. ABA's governance process is not known for its speed, so it could be years before anything is in place -- enough time for more law schools to start admitting students with the GRE. The current ABA proposal does not have a grandfather clause but could be amended to add one.

Many law deans have written to the ABA to oppose the rules change. Some say that law schools need to reconsider their use of standardized tests in general, and that reliance on tests limits efforts to diversify law schools.

"The requirement of a standardized admissions test negatively impacts efforts to diversify the profession," says a letter submitted by the deans of law at George Washington University; Northwestern; the University of Arizona; the University of California, Irvine; the University of Southern California; and the University of Texas.

"The many law schools attentive to rankings by U.S. News routinely wait-list or deny admission to students who the school believes can succeed in the educational program and pass the bar exam. In fact, many of these students’ admission test scores are -- in predictive terms -- indistinguishable from applicants who are admitted. And many of these students are diverse along any measurement of diversity. But the heavy weight put on these test scores by U.S. News inhibits the ability to admit these students for fear of harming the law school’s rankings."

The letter also says that the rule would limit experimentation on testing started by some law schools. "The proposed standard is exceedingly opaque, and rather than encouraging innovation, stifles it."

Other letters submitted by deans noted that many admissions processes at law schools vary from institution to institution and reflect different missions. Why, these letters ask, must standardized testing be standardized with the LSAT?

One group urging the ABA to make the rules change is the LSAC.

Testy, the group's new president, denied that the council was trying to squelch competition. "We’re all for choice and for using reliable and good instruments to measure" applicants, she said.

But she said that there was a concern that applicants "are understanding what they should be doing," and can get a true sense of whether they will succeed in law school. "We want to make sure we're fair to applicants."

Asked if she was saying that Harvard Law School can't be trusted to admit a class of students using either the LSAT or the GRE, Testy said, "Sure they can. And a student who has the kind of background and educational opportunity that a Harvard law student has will succeed." But she added that "all the schools aren't Harvard."

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