Law Schools Are Fighting For Equity And Diversity With Test-Optional Policies—Will They Succeed This Time?

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The accreditation council of the American Bar Association (ABA) has voted to drop the standardized test requirement in law school admissions by fall of 2025. While the proposed change does not eliminate the use of standardized testing altogether, it permits law schools to adopt test-optional policies if they so choose. In order to be officially implemented, the proposed alteration to testing requirements will face a vote in the ABA House of Delegates in February 2023. This marks the second time that the Council has pushed a measure to alter the testing standard—another proposal was put forward in 2018, though it was withdrawn without final approval by the House.

The measure concerns ABA Standard 503, which states that: “A law school shall require each applicant for admission as a first-year J.D. degree student to take a valid and reliable admission test to assist the school and the applicant in assessing the applicant’s capability of satisfactorily completing the school’s program of legal education.” While the primary standardized test that meets this requirement is the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), other standardized tests are accepted at the discretion of the ABA. Most notably, the ABA officially sanctioned the use of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) in November of 2021, leading to 52% of accredited law schools accepting the test by September 2022. With the reconsideration of Standard 503, the GRE could also become optional for law schools that accept the test.

The controversial vote is the result of years of debate regarding the ways in which the LSAT and other standardized tests disadvantage marginalized students in the application process. The move to eliminate the requirement comes as law schools around the country seek to diversify their student bodies and eliminate barriers for marginalized groups to pursue the legal profession. Just last week, Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley Law Schools ceased participation in the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law Schools rankings, with the deans of Yale and Berkeley Law Schools citing the ranking’s role in exacerbating inequalities between law schools and discouraging lower income students from pursuing law school.

In recent years, Standard 503 has come under scrutiny, as certain administrators, law professors, and legal experts have alleged that the use of standardized testing is an obstruction to achieving diversity in the admissions process. In a 2020 note in the New York University Law Review, Eremipagamo M. Amabebe wrote: “Once a simple tool to aid in the assessment of diverse applicants, [the LSAT] has in recent decades become a significant barrier to entry with disparate negative impacts on women, racial minorities, individuals of low socioeconomic status, and, perhaps most egregiously, those with disabilities.” For instance, a 2019 study published in the FIU Law Review found that Black students score 11 points lower on average on the LSAT than their white and Asian counterparts.

Similar accusations have been levied against other standardized tests, particularly in the years since Covid-19 led many universities to suspend their testing requirements. Research has shown that Black and Hispanic students score lower on average on standardized tests such as the ACT and the SAT. A 2021 study from the National Education Association further called attention to the racist origins of standardized testing in the U.S., noting that the racial disparity in standardized testing is a historical phenomenon, stretching back to the very implementation of standardized testing in the early 20th century.

Considering the implications of standardized testing for student body diversity, among other concerns, an overwhelming number of colleges and universities have maintained test-optional or test-blind policies since the pandemic. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, more than 800 institutions of higher education adopted test-optional policies within the last three years, leaving only approximately 160 schools that still require standardized testing in their admissions processes. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, this brings the total number of schools with test-optional or test-blind policies to a record 1,835.

As test-optional policies increasingly become the standard for both undergraduate and graduate programs, advocates for the elimination of standardized testing claim that it is time for law schools to catch up. In an April 2021 Memorandum, The Strategic Review Committee of the American Bar Association claimed that “the Council remained the only accreditor among law, medical, dental, pharmacy, business, and architecture school accreditors that required an admission test [such as the LSAT] in its Standards.” However, not only does the LSAT yield disparate scores between white and Black or Hispanic test-takers, but it also fails to adequately convey students’ long-term ability to succeed in the profession, according to advocates for the elimination of Standard 503. Aaron N. Taylor’s study in the FIU Law Review critiqued the disproportionate consideration of the test in many schools’ admissions, particularly as the test is specifically designed to indicate first-year academic success, rather than overall capabilities or long-term promise in the legal profession. “The first year of law school is merely one step, albeit one of inflated importance, on the path from layperson to lawyer,” the study states. “The fundamental goals of legal education are longer term; but the LSAT does not predict one’s chances of attaining these goals well, surely not well enough to be the primary admission criterion.”

However, dissenters warn that despite the Council’s intentions to the contrary, the proposed measure would have an adverse effect on diversity in law school admissions. A brief signed by dozens of law school professionals in response to the vote expressed concern that the proposed changes would “diminish the diversity of law schools’ incoming classes, by increasing reliance on grade point average and other criteria that are potentially more infused with bias.” The Council, on the other hand, argues that the test is considered in vastly different ways at different law schools, undermining the claim that it “level[s] the playing field’ for all applicants” and creates an unbiased standard for admissions.

The debate is reflective of broader conversations throughout academia about how to achieve greater diversity and equity in admissions practices in the absence of testing requirements—and whether altering testing requirements alone can diversify the landscape of admissions. Regardless of the outcome, the final vote on this controversial proposal in the House of Delegates this February will have significant implications for law school admissions and the profession of law more broadly for years to come.

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