Purpose of the LSAT

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Remember, the main objective of law schools in the application process is to predict which candidates will be able to do law school work. Nowadays, the undergraduate grade-point average is the best single predictor of success in law school. But before World War II, undergraduate courses of study were not standardized and many colleges were not accredited. Grading standards varied widely, so colleges could not be compared one with another. As a result of this variation, undergraduate GPAs were not always dependable predictors of law school success.

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For this reason, law schools developed a single standard test for all candidates to take, on the basis of which they could be ranked and compared. The LSAT was first used in 1948-49 and has been a routine part of the law school application process since the 1960s. The Law School Admission Council, a nonprofit association of law schools, later created an organization, Law School Admission Services, or Law Services (as it is universally known) to administer the LSAT, do research on the application process, and perform a variety of other administrative and statistical chores for the law schools. Law Services claims that the present LSAT measures skills that are considered essential for success in law school: the ability to read and comprehend complex texts with accuracy and insight, organize and manage information and draw reasonable inferences from it, reason critically, and analyze and evaluate the reasoning and argument of others.

Law Services has conducted validity studies that demonstrate that the LSAT correlates with and predicts freshman law school grades.

The better you do on the LSAT, the better you will tend to do in your freshman year of law school.

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This correlation is weak, however, and Law Services fills its publications with warnings against overreliance on the test: The LSAT does not measure every discipline-related skill necessary for academic work, nor does it measure other factors important to academic success. . . [s]cores should be viewed as approximate indicators rather than exact measures of an applicant's abilities.

Moreover, grades have become more useful. Now that undergraduate colleges are all accredited and their courses of study are nation-ally standardized, law schools can feel confident that grades earned at one college can be compared (perhaps with a little adjustment) to grades earned at another college. And recent studies have indicated that the undergraduate grade-point average is now a better predictor of law school success than the LSAT.

Why, then, do law schools continue to use the LSAT? There are several answers. One is that "the combination of a student's LSAT scores and undergraduate grade point average yields a better prediction of law school success than either measure when used alone." Law schools combine the two numbers in different ways, most weighing grades more heavily, but a few emphasizing the test. They claim improved predictive power for their admissions formulas when compared with either number used alone.

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The gain appears to be small, however, and some law school administrators have questioned whether continued use of the LSAT is worth its cost. They fear that widespread cramming and use of test-preparation courses is reducing the predictive power of the LSAT. And they are sensitive to charges that the LSAT, like all standardized tests, is culturally biased: it is said to favor white, middle-class males and to work against poorer students, African-Americans, and members of other minorities who are less familiar with mainstream culture, have less experience with standardized tests, and are less likely to be able to afford the expensive cram courses that might help them catch up.

For all these reasons, most law schools have decreased their reliance on the test in recent years. That's good news for students who have or hope to achieve good grades. And it should calm some of the fears of students with performance anxiety.

But law schools are unlikely to dispense with the test entirely. To some extent, this is simply a matter of inertia, for all organizations resist change. But there are also more cogent reasons. Some law school administrators fear that in the future the predictive power of grades may decline. They remember the widespread concern over the grade inflation of the early 1970s, when all the students at some institutions seemed to earn only As and Bs while the students at other institutions approximated the normal distribution, and they fear that the present fuss about multiculturalism and decanonization may again lead to widespread disparities among schools. They hesitate to abandon their 45 years of experience with the LSAT (and to disband the organization of testing specialists and administrators that now administers it) when they may need a uniform, reliable predictor in the future.

The most selective of law schools consistently receive applications from thousands of well-qualified students each year. They need some way to rank students who all have superb grades. For these law schools, the LSAT becomes another hurdle or obstacle, another needle's eye that each candidate has to pass through.

The LSAT can be used for political cover. The exact score that the test provides for each applicant seems mathematical and precise, and comparisons on the basis of these exact scores seem more objective and impartial than they actually are. Numbers seem scientific, and people are more willing to accept decisions made on scientific grounds than decisions that carry the imprint of personal discretion. Consider the following hypothetical conversation between the dean of a state-supported law school and a state senator who is extremely influential in state politics and whose legislative committee controls the law school budget:

SENATOR: How come you admitted Julia and Mary to your freshman class and yet rejected my son Johnny?

DEAN: Well, senator, as you can see on this printout, Julia had a 158 LSAT score, Mary had a 157, and your son only had a 156. J didn't rank them, the test ranked them . . .

It seems objective. It seems fair. Numbers don't lie . . . right? The test takes the personal element out of the rejection letters. Of course, Law Services continually insists that the test isn't capable of absolute precision, that it should never be used as the only criterion for an admit/reject decision, and that it "should not be given undue weight solely because its use is convenient." But no administrator readily gives up such a useful shield.

Finally, some supporters of the test have turned the affirmative action argument around, arguing that African-Americans and members of other traditionally disfavored minorities are less likely to make good undergraduate grades, even when they possess considerable ability, because they face bias and discrimination, or because they suffer from poorer preparation as a result of discrimination in the past. If we are to have more minority lawyers, the argument runs, minority prelaw students need some way other than grades to demonstrate to law schools that they have the necessary intellectual skills. The LSAT provides such an opportunity.

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This is merely a specialized case of a general argument: law schools won't admit a candidate unless he or she provides some evidence of law-school-related intellectual skills. The more chances a candidate has to do this, the fairer the admissions process is. As long as the LSAT has at least some predictive value, eliminating it would make the process less, not more, fair.

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Law-school-related Intellectual Skills      Law School Work      Application Process      Law Schools      LSAT      Prelaw Students     

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