I attended a conference a few years ago for undergraduate “prelaw advisers”—academics, usually professors or deans, who guide undergraduates through the law-school admissions process. An admissions official from a prestigious law school used a file from a past applicant (with identifying information removed) to illustrate the review process. She began by noting the student’s high grade point average from “a good school.” That bothered me, because I knew she’d never call my regional state institution a “good school.”
I thought: Thank goodness for the Law School Admissions Test. Only the LSAT gives the mostly working-class, first-generation college students I teach a shot at the top law schools.
The Journal reported in May that the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, is considering a proposal to abandon its requirement that applicants take a “valid and reliable admissions test.” This is likely a pre-emptive response to a case the Supreme Court will hear in its 2022-23 term. In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the justices will consider whether to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), which approved the use of racial preferences in admissions to further the “compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body.”
If the court overturns Grutter, race-conscious university admissions systems will be subject to renewed court challenges. Racial disparities in admitted students’ scores on standardized tests are the strongest evidence of discrimination in admissions, as Justice Anthony Kennedy detailed in his Grutter dissent.
By excusing favored students from the LSAT, schools would make their preferences more opaque and challenges to them harder to prove. An LSAT-optional policy would also cause average scores to rise by eliminating lower ones from the pool. That would push the school’s average score up, creating competitive pressure on top schools to adopt such policies.
Writing for the majority in Grutter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor affirmed the need “to assemble a student body that is not just racially diverse, but diverse along all the qualities valued by the university.” The experience of my working-class students demonstrates that the LSAT furthers that goal.
Among the biases concealed by subjective measures is class bias. I don’t recall which “good school” was in the file the admissions officer showed at the conference, but I remember it was a very selective private university. Her words weren’t as benign as they might have sounded. She was talking about how she would evaluate the many applications she had to review each year. Whether or not a GPA was earned at a “good school” was clearly part of her internal algorithm for winnowing them down.
It struck me as unfair that she was giving applicants extra credit for being privileged or fortunate enough to attend a “good school.” I hoped that she would balance her evaluation of GPAs with her weighting of LSAT scores. In fact, her words guide me to this day as I advise students hoping to be admitted to law school. The LSAT is important, I tell them, because it helps confirm the legitimacy of your high GPA.
To be sure, most of those who attend “good schools” are academically gifted and worked hard to get good grades in high school. But most also had a life situation, not to mention the financial wherewithal, that made attending one of these “good schools” a viable option.
For working-class students, the undergraduate calculus is different. They often have significant family responsibilities that require them to stay close to home. Others depend on extended-family safety nets for child care, housing and even emotional support. Tuition, room and board, and travel are unaffordable for many of these students. The smartest ones who want to go on to graduate or professional studies calculate the expense that awaits them in the future and, wisely, don’t want to be saddled with student debt. For them, my university—with annual tuition of around $10,000 and significant scholarship money available—makes financial sense.
For those who can and want to go to law school, how, without a “valid and reliable admissions test,” will my students demonstrate that they are as bright and capable of doing well in law school as students from privileged backgrounds? That’s precisely what the LSAT accomplishes. The Law School Admissions Council, which designs and administers the LSAT, has demonstrated through extensive research that “the LSAT is the single best predictor of law school success.”
Of my students who scored very high on the LSAT, virtually none paid for expensive prep courses. Real past LSAT questions are released after they are administered and are available for purchase at a low price. Students are able to practice taking a real test and identify areas of weakness. They can then use free services, including the ubiquitous Khan Academy, to improve their performance.
Bias can come in many forms, and the most effective way to counteract it—and to promote diversity—is through objective measures such as the LSAT.
Mr. Sracic is a professor of politics and international relations and director of the Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Center at Youngstown State University.
Appeared in the July 25, 2022, print edition as 'The LSAT and Other Standardized Tests Are Good for Diversity'.