The “Test-Optional” movement for law school admissions is gaining ground, and the recent Supreme Court case eliminating affirmative action in higher education admissions practices could be playing a part in the change.
The Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) has been the standard for law school admissions practices for decades. Administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), the current form of the exam has been in use since 1991. Since the widespread use of the LSAT became the norm, a prospective law school student’s LSAT score and undergraduate GPA have been the main two metrics for admittance by virtually all American Bar Association (ABA)-accredited law schools in the United States.
However, there has been a movement gaining steam in recent years to do away with the LSAT and modernize admissions practices to take into account more than GPA and standardized test scores. This movement, sometimes referred to as the “Test-Optional movement” is built on longstanding criticisms of the LSAT. Critics of the LSAT argue that the test acts as an obstacle to prospective students who come from lower income or racially diverse backgrounds. These critics can point to raw data which shows that Black LSAT takers on average obtain lower scores than their white counterparts. There is no consensus on why that is, with some LSAT critics arguing that the exam itself is biased towards white takers’ lived experiences, while other critics see the score gap as emblematic of racial disparities in America’s education system. In either case, the result is that the LSAT in some situations acts as an impenetrable obstacle for otherwise-qualified students of color to attend law school.
The Test-Optional movement has its own critics, most notably the LSAC, who has never wavered in its determination that the LSAT it administers is still the best way to determine a student’s ability to succeed in law school and eventually pass the bar exam. The ABA has also weighed in, albeit ambivalently, as different arms of the organization appear to have competing views on the importance of the LSAT. For example, the ABA contemplated removing the longstanding LSAT requirement in law school admissions in 2022, only to pause that same effort in 2023. The ABA appears to have sided with legal educators and administrators who opined that the LSAT is still the only reliable way to determine whether an applicant can pass the bar exam. As the accrediting institution of American law schools, the ABA is the final adjudicator of the Test-Optional movement’s future. While the Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar – the ABA’s accrediting arm – has expressed its interest in the Test-Optional movement, the ABA’s policymaking body voted in February of this year to reject a potential end to the LSAT mandate. So, for now at least, the LSAT is here to stay.
The ABA’s policymaking vote has not deterred the Test-Optional movement, as a growing number of law schools have begun to experiment with admissions programs that do not rely on the LSAT. Georgetown University Law Center and Washburn University School of Law won ABA approval to begin admitting students without any consideration of the LSAT. The ABA accrediting body has also given another fourteen law schools permission to admit students using a new eight-week online program called “JD-Next.” One of the biggest motivators for these law schools is a renewed focus on broadening their applicant pools to attract diverse applicants.
One of the main factors in the recent acceleration of the Test-Optional movement – despite the vote to maintain the LSAT mandate by ABA policymakers– is the recent Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, 600 U.S. 181 (2023), which ended affirmative action in higher education admissions. The elimination of race-conscious admissions practices appears to have galvanized law schools that were already on the fence about the LSAT and its potentially negative effects on applicants of color. University admissions officials who already have reservations about the LSAT’s demonstrated racial disparity no longer have any way of combatting those disparate outcomes by taking the applicant’s race into account. The LSAT is seen by some as reinforcing racial disparities in higher education, and without race-conscience admissions tools, educators are signaling their desire to do away with the LSAT as an antiquated racially biased reinforcement mechanism rather than the objective applicant measuring stick it purports to be.
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Students for Fair Admissions, law school administrators have little tools to combat racial disparity in law school admissions. The next logical step for race-conscious law schools to take is to attempt to do away with one of the main culprits of disparity altogether. Momentum is certainly building to end the LSAT, but only time will tell if its demise is imminent, or greatly exaggerated.
Law schools embrace LSAT alternatives after affirmative action ban | Reuters
ABA delegates reject measure to make LSAT, other law school admission tests optional – The Washington Post
ABA votes to end law schools’ LSAT requirement, but not until 2025 | Reuters
Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, 600 U.S. 181 (2023)