American Bar Assoc. Considers

University Testing

In response to plummeting minority enrollments in Texas and California law schools (see Examiner, Spring and Summer 1997), the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) have proposed a pilot project under which law schools would deemphasize the role of the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) in evaluating applicants.


The proposal comes as opponents of affirmative action are calling for revamped admissions processes that would increase the use of LSAT scores in making admissions decisions. Such an approach, according to recent research by the vice president of the LSAC, Dr. Linda Wightman, would offer bleak prospects for continued ethnic diversity in legal education.


By examining the performance of students admitted in 1990, Dr. Wightman found that LSAT scores and other simple numerical measures are poor predictors of law school graduation and bar exam passage rates for white and minority students. According to her study, more than 75 percent of all minority law school graduates would have been denied admission under a strictly numerical admissions scheme with a heavy emphasis on LSAT scores. For white students the comparable figure was just over 20 percent. The decline in the number of minorities admitted to public law schools in California and Texas after affirmative action was barred confirms these forecasts.


Concerned by the fall in minority enrollment, the Committee on Diversity of the ABA s Section for Legal Education and Bar Admissions proposed a pilot project under which participating schools would use the LSAT only to create an initial pool of applicants considered qualified. From that list, admissions offices would then use other criteria, including grades, to select the incoming class. Currently, most schools combine grades and test scores in a formula to select students from the applicant pool.


The project is still largely undefined and the Law School Admissions Services (LSAS), which develops the LSAT, is gathering data and attempting to lay out the scope of the study. LSAS will report back to the Committee on Diversity, which is headed by Herma Hill Kay, the dean of Boalt Hall, the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. Faculty at Boalt Hall are also due to vote on an internal proposal to experiment with reviewing applicants files before looking at their LSAT scores.


One issue of concern in the ABA proposal, according to Philip Shelton, the Executive Director of the LSAS, is that it may entail the use of cut scores, which LSAS opposes. However, the project would also require a school-by-school analysis and if cut scores were set at reasonable levels and differed for each school, based on that institution s particular experience, the net result would be more applicants, especially minorities, becoming eligible for admission.


Shelton noted that the LSAS now finds itself in the schizophrenic position of downplaying the usefulness of its own product. Ironically, opponents of affirmative action put more stock in standardized tests than do the test makers. LSAC members already rely more heavily on test scores than do colleges or other graduate schools, in part because they underinvest in admissions office staffs. Moves to ban affirmative action could increase reliance on the LSAT unless law schools take specific steps to emphasize less exclusive and more meaningful measures.


The Threat to Diversity in Legal Education: An Empirical Analysis of the Consequences of Abandoning Race as aFactor in Law School Admission Decisions, New York University Law Review, Volume 72.