Talking Points

Another standardized test bites the dust. Will standards follow?

For nearly 75 years, the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) has been a rite of passage for aspiring attorneys. Although the format has varied since it was first offered in 1948, the exam is best known for the logic games used to assess analytical reasoning. Does a statement like "A university library budget committee must reduce exactly five of eight areas of expenditure—G, L, M, N, P, R, S, and W—in accordance with the following conditions…" stimulate your faculties or bring out a cold sweat? Whether and where you attend law school depends on the answer.

Future generations of students could avoid such trials, though. In a recommendation issued today, the American Bar Association (ABA) signaled that it may no longer require law schools to use the LSAT in their admissions process. (A representative of the ABA contacted us to clarify that the recommendation must be approved by the ABA House of Delegates and a similar measure was withdrawn in 2018). 

The renewed proposal change is only the most recent step in a broader turn against standardized testing, including in legal education. Like the SAT in undergraduate admissions, the LSAT has been accused of racial bias and promoting a destructive obsession with rankings. Critics also argue that the LSAT, which was designed to predict academic performance, has little connection to professional accomplishment. That's why Tucker Carlson's demand for the release of Ketanji Brown Jackson's LSAT scores was so provocative. 

The new standards don't address any of these issues explicitly. Since the same ABA division recently tried to impose trendy diversity training and "cross-cultural competency" instruction as conditions of accreditation, it's not crazy to think politics played into the decision. Fear that the Supreme Court will ban or severely restrict affirmative action may also have encouraged the shift.

The incentives for law schools to dump the LSAT aren't only political, though. In addition to the moral panic that's gripped higher education over the last few years, law schools face declining applications after a pandemic-driven spike in interest. That's partly because word is getting out that the legal profession isn't as glamorous or lucrative as people imagine or the media depict. Accepting alternate exams, such as the GRE, or going test-optional altogether can help pump up enrollment, particularly at marginal institutions. 

Would-be lawyers still have to pass the bar, though. Thanks to reformers' efforts, the ABA adopted stricter requirements for the graduates of accredited schools to pass the bar exam in 2019. If critics are right that the LSAT is unnecessary, bar passage rates shouldn't decline as the test becomes less important to admissions. If they do, expect attacks on the bar to mount in the next phase of the movement against tests.

This Talking Point was updated at 12:40 p.m., May 6, 2022.