The Wall Street Journal
(c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

March 29, 2001

Law School Admission Council Aims to Quash Overreliance on LSAT
By Jess Bravin

    NEWTOWN, Pa. -- The Law School Admission Council, which administers the Law School Admission Test, finds itself wrestling with a problem as vexing as any on its three-hour exam: how to wean its members from what it calls their "historic overreliance on the LSAT."

    The test, first administered in 1948, has become the single most important factor in deciding who gets admitted to a law school. But it is in danger of becoming a casualty of the legal and political battles over affirmative action. The latest blow came on Tuesday, when a federal judge in Detroit struck down the University of Michigan Law School's admissions system, in part because whites generally had to score higher on the LSAT than minorities to be admitted.

    Michigan Law, wanting blacks and Hispanics to constitute at least 10% of its enrollment, adopted the policy partly to compensate for the fact that whites, on average, score 10 points higher than blacks on the LSAT. Similar policies at law schools in California, Texas and Washington state have been ended in recent years, either by voter initiative or court action, spurring officials to seek new ways to get more minorities into the profession.

    While setting different standards for whites and minorities is unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman proposed in his ruling this week that schools "relax, or even eliminate, reliance on the LSAT." Evidence suggests that the test "does not predict success in the legal profession at all," the judge wrote, so "one must wonder why the law school concerns itself at all with an applicant's LSAT score."

    Elliott Milstein, an American University law professor and past president of the Association of American of Law Schools, concurs. "If important societal goals" such as enrolling minorities "are being thwarted" because of heavy reliance on the LSAT, he says, "we ought to be open to thinking about whether we need the test at all."

    Sensing the direction of the prevailing legal winds, and seeking to protect its place at the center of legal admissions, the LSAC has been trying to persuade admissions officers to rely less on the test and help determine other ways to measure aspiring lawyers. In December, the council committed $10 million toward those ends and invited researchers to apply for grants. The funds come from fees charged to students, who typically pay at least $200 for the LSAT and related services.

    Given in five 35-minute sections, the LSAT purports to measure reading comprehension with passages that the student must dissect, as well as "analytical reasoning" and "logical reasoning" through a thicket of puzzles and word problems. It does not test knowledge of such things as the U.S. Constitution or legal principles, history or ethics. Scores are reported on a scale from 120 to 180.

    The admission council acknowledges that the test serves only to predict which applicants are likely to have higher grades than others in the first year of law school. Nevertheless, the test has become central to a law school's standings. The influential annual ratings published by U.S. News & World Report use the scores of incoming students for 12.5% of each school's rank.

    Unlike other factors, such as reputation among lawyers and judges, the profile of students is within a school's control. So if a school wants to boost its rank, "the quick fix is, 'Let's get next year's LSAT median up,"' says the admission council's president, Philip D. Shelton, himself a former dean at the Mercer and Washington University law schools.

    The council long has said its exam is but one of many factors that schools should weigh when reviewing applicants. But the fact is, Mr. Shelton says, that law schools have largely followed that advice only for minority groups. For others, Mr. Shelton says, essays, recommendation letters and lists of undergraduate activities could rarely redeem a moderate LSAT score.

    No one knows the precise reason for the gap between scores of blacks and Hispanics and those of whites and Asians. Theories range from poor schools in minority neighborhoods to inherent bias on the exams themselves. But it's clear that race-blind admission decisions based primarily on LSAT scores and, to a lesser extent, college grades have had a devastating effect on black and Hispanic enrollment.

    At the University of California's three law schools, for example, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans made up 9.4% of the 2,600 students admitted in 2000; in 1996, the last year of affirmative action, they were 18.4% of the admits. In the same period, Asians have remained constant at about 18% of admits, while white admissions have grown to 72.8% from 63.9%.

    Last year, Rennard Strickland, dean of the University of Oregon law school and chairman of the LSAC board, wrote in an essay that, thanks partly to affirmative action, administrators became "inattentive, if not lazy" about the shortcomings of an LSAT-driven admissions process. To encourage admissions officers to rely less on the test, the LSAC last year devised a handbook laying out eight "new models" of how to weight various factors.

    The council's favored method -- which it acknowledges is "the most labor- intensive" -- requires schools to assign candidates ratings in nine categories, including "leadership," "obstacles overcome," "accomplishments" and work experience. The LSAT and undergraduate grades could each account for only 10 of 49 points. The handbook, however, ended up being "pretty meaningless," Mr. Shelton says, since schools were unwilling to abandon their current systems without confidence in a new one.

    In January, the council began a modest experiment with several hundred students who registered online for the LSAT. In exchange for a $25 rebate on test fees, the students completed a 14-question form that asked them to describe "factors that . . . may have caused your LSAT score(s) . . . to underestimate your ability to be a successful law student or attorney." They were also asked to discuss their qualities of "integrity, initiative, perseverance, compassion, generosity and civility," to indicate whether their parents were immigrants and to describe their "personal experience, if any, of racial diversity."

    The questionnaire aims to elicit evidence that an applicant overcame racial discrimination -- which courts have found to be permissible -- rather than automatically giving minority applicants an edge.

    Mr. Shelton says the council will team up this year with three or four law schools, as yet unnamed, and conduct a dual admission process -- one using the questionnaire, one not. Though actual decisions will be based on the current system, the council hopes to determine whether using the forms would have resulted in more minorities' being admitted. It hopes to quantify the questionnaire's answers in some manner but isn't sure at the moment how that will be carried out.

    The LSAC has also funded the first phase of a $500,000 project at the University of California, Berkeley, that aims to develop a new test to complement the LSAT. Researchers want to find "criteria that will predict successful lawyering, as opposed to successful law studenting," says Marjorie Shultz, a law professor who, along with a psychology professor, designed the project.

    Starting in July, the researchers will survey students, faculty and alumni of Berkeley's law school, Boalt Hall, on the skills and traits a lawyer needs. The hard part will be figuring out how to test for those traits. One possibility, Ms. Shultz says, could be multiday projects in which a group of applicants would be assigned a specific task. They would then be graded on how much they contributed to the group's success, which Ms. Shultz says more closely resembles the way lawyers work in firms. "Screening devices ought to be job- related and not simply extraneous," she says.

    As the LSAT debate goes on, some critics are even saying a high score might indicate negative attributes. Prof. David B. Wilkins, who directs Harvard Law School's Program on the Legal Profession, cites research showing that "the higher your LSAT score, the lower your likelihood to do community service" as a lawyer.