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The Wall Street Journal reports that the University of Arizona College of Law has begun accepting GRE scores in lieu of LSATs. Two other schools — the University of Hawaii and Wake Forest — are performing validation studies to determine whether they, too, should make the move to GREs.
At Arizona, Dean Marc Miller said, “This isn’t an effort to declare war on anybody. This is an effort to fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession.”
To “fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession,” accepting GRE scores instead of LSATs seems like a misfire. Beyond the rhetoric is a reality that might reveal what else could be going on.
The GRE Is Easier
According to the executive director of prelaw programs at Kaplan Test Prep, Jeff Thomas, “The GRE is regarded as the easier test. The entirety of the LSAT was meant to mimic the law-school experience, while the GRE was not created for that particular purpose.”
But the fact that the GRE is easier doesn’t explain why some law schools want to use it. Self-interest and U.S. News rankings might.
LSATs Are Telling a Sad Story
As LSAT scores of entering classes have dropped at many schools, so have bar passage rates. According to the University of Arizona School of Law’s ABA Reports, its median LSAT for matriculants in 2012 was 161. For 2015, it was 160. That’s not much of a decline, but at the 25th percentile, the LSAT score went from 159 to 155.
According to the school’s website, in July 2013, 92 percent of first-time test takers passed the Arizona bar exam. In July 2015, the passage rate was 84 percent.
The GRE Isn’t the LSAT
Such trends suggest another possible reason for allowing students to substitute the GRE for the LSAT: It buys law schools time and complicates prelaw student decision-making. At many schools, year-over-year LSAT score comparisons have documented the willingness of many deans to accept marginal students. The easiest way to stop such time series analyses is to make that test optional.
The GRE will be a new data point. Until schools report those scores for two or three years, it won’t reveal trends in admitted student qualifications. That will deflect attention away from the “declining quality of admitted students” narrative that has become pervasive. Never mind that the narrative is pervasive because, based on LSATs and undergraduate GPAs for matriculants at many schools, it’s true. (Between 2012 and 2015, the University of Arizona School of Law’s undergraduate GPA for matriculants dropped at all three measuring points — the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles, according to its ABA reports for those years.)
The Heavy Hand of U.S. News rankings
In addition to confusing the story on the declining quality of applicants, law schools have another reason to accept the GRE. Applicants will take both exams and pick the better result for law school consumption. It’s analogous to the current ABA rule allowing schools to use only a student’s highest LSAT score.
Prelaw students who do badly on the LSAT will submit the GRE score instead. The ongoing self-selection of poor LSAT scores away from the applicant pool will increase the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile LSAT values for the scores that remain. Until all schools adopt the GRE option, it will help the U.S. News rankings of the schools that do it.
There’s precedent for such behavior. Most high school students take the SAT and the ACT. Where a college allows either score, students submit the higher one.
Look Beyond the Rhetoric
Trends at the two other schools mentioned in the WSJ article might be relevant to all of this. At the University of Hawaii, compare the 2012 and 2015 ABA forms reporting LSATs for matriculants:
75th percentile: 2012 – 160; 2015 – 158
50th percentile: 2012 – 158; 2015 – 154
25th percentile: 2012 – 154; 2015 – 151
Likewise, at Wake Forest the results are:
75th percentile: 2012 – 165; 2015 – 162
50th percentile: 2012 – 163; 2015 – 161
25th percentile: 2012 – 159; 2015 – 157
At this point, the appropriate legal phrase is res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself.
The ABA is planning to determine independently whether the GRE meets its accreditation requirement allowing schools to use the LSAT or another “valid and reliable” test when making admissions decisions. The profession’s leading organization is likely to approve the switch. That’s because doing so will perpetuate what has become the ABA’s central mission in legal education: protecting many law schools from scrutiny and meaningful accountability.
That’s about as far as you can get from trying “to fundamentally change legal education and the legal profession.”