For decades, college admission exams have been rightfully criticized as discriminatory gatekeeping mechanisms which prohibit access to higher education. While standardized testing has since evolved from its openly Darwinist origins, modern assessments have clandestinely retained many of the inequitable characteristics of their predecessors. Students—disproportionately non-white and low-income—without the resources or capital to adequately prepare for the exams consistently perform worse than their more affluent peers. Such wide disparities based on race and income have recently led the College Board to begin releasing an accompanying “adversity score” as part of each SAT score report, a measure that has drawn the ire of challengers quick to question the index’s efficacy.
Whether the adversity score becomes a well-intentioned footnote in the SAT’s 100-year history or proves to be a novel equalizer, College Board’s newest initiative at least represents inertia in the right direction. The same can hardly be said for the LSAC, the administrator of the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)—an exam already riddled with unique problems and devastating consequences for the legal profession.
Offered seven times a year, more than 100,000 prospective law students write the LSAT annually. Structurally, the exam is indistinguishable from peer examinations like the GRE and the GMAT; spread over the course of three hours, the test consists of about 100 scored questions and a take-home writing section. However, a closer analysis reveals idiosyncrasies exclusive to the LSAT that only magnify the vast inaccessibility and inequity produced by similar tests.
While any standardized exam requires a degree of test-specific knowledge, this specialized understanding generally builds upon content students are already familiar with. Even the notoriously difficult MCAT largely tests applicants on information they have been exposed to as part of their pre-med curriculum. In contrast, the LSAT tests esoteric concepts like
formal logic that students are unlikely to have been exposed to prior. Two logical reasoning sections constitute 50 percent of the exam, with questions challenging test takers to identify logical fallacies, create sufficient assumptions, and conduct parallel reasoning. The analytical reasoning section—colloquially referred to as the logic games—is responsible for another 25 percent of the applicant’s score. Often considered the most daunting section by first-time test-takers, a typical logic games set more closely resembles the puzzle page of a newspaper than a standardized test. Worded innocently enough, a particular logic game may task a student with organizing a museum display or selecting flowers for a bouquet; however, the complex interactions between the numerous rules and conditional relationships in each imagined scenario require students to carefully draft complicated diagrams both precisely and in a timely manner. Even completing this section—let alone accurately—in the allotted 35 minutes can take students dozens of hours of practice.
As a consequence of the test’s highly specialized, unfamiliar subject matter, performing well requires months of practice—a particularly expensive endeavor. Effective prep companies charge thousands of dollars for their services, official practice tests are pricey, and to take the test once and send a score report to five schools costs $650. All of this is in addition to the opportunity cost of spending 25 hours a week studying instead of working or completing school work. Unlike the ACT and SAT, which theoretically compete against each other to put out a more effective, appropriately priced test, the LSAT has a near monopoly on its market. Although an increasing number of law schools are now accepting the GRE in lieu of the LSAT, this development has not yet fostered meaningful competition: out of 38,000 matriculants at ABA-certified law schools, only 168 were admitted with GRE scores. The lack of a viable alternative to the LSAT has allowed LSAC to effectively set its own prices and shoulder criticism from consistently unreliable test administrations. All of these factors culminate in a test that is unaffordable, even with fee waivers, to countless applicants.
Moreover, LSAC has proven to be particularly litigious towards attempts by outside organizations to provide study materials at a discount rate. 7Sage, a widely used prep website with more than 100,000 users, was recently forced by LSAC to remove their publicly available study materials. Established in 2011 with the goal of “liberat[ing] legal education,” 7Sage’s founder and former first generation law student J.Y. Ping had created hundreds of hours of free explanations to logic games in order to democratize the law school application process. Undeterred, 7Sage continues to provide low-cost test prep in the hopes of leveling the playing field.
LSAC’s clash with 7Sage only underscores the accessibility problem the LSAT has long suffered from: a history of exclusion with myriad consequences. Since Black test takers score 10 points lower on average than their white peers, they are far less likely to be admitted to high-opportunity institutions, if anywhere at all; nearly 50 percent of Black applicants will not receive a single offer of admission. And an exam that discriminates on the basis of race and income has an enormous trickle-down effect on not only law school demographics, but moreover the legal profession as a whole. While the LSAT is certainly not wholly responsible, it plays an important role in perpetuating an overwhelmingly white field: only 15 percent of lawyers and less than 20 percent of Article III judges identify as people of color. This dearth of diversity on the federal bench is especially reprehensible, depriving millions of Americans of valuable physical representation and the nation as a whole of the ideological variety delivered by an inclusive legal system. Empirical evidence shows that the presence of a Black judge on an appellate panel can significantly alter the voting behavior of other members, and likewise that non-white judges are more likely to mete out shorter sentences. The LSAT thus has a tangible impact on the delivery of justice, serving as part of a larger causal network that produces worse outcomes for people of color.
Despite its failings, the LSAT remains a necessary stop on every prospective attorney’s journey towards a legal career. This unpleasant reality was abundantly clear to 7Sage from its inception: as observed by Ping, “The LSAT is the gateway to the legal profession, and thus it is the gateway to key positions in our society.” For too long, however, the LSAT has served as a gatekeeper rather than a gateway. While diminishing the test’s importance or modifying its content may not prove to be a panacea for the legal profession’s homogeneity, like the SAT’s adversity score it would represent movement in the right direction. As an increasing number of the country’s most impassioned debates and pressing policy decisions are waged in court, the necessity of a representative judiciary becomes even more important. Reforming the LSAT may prove to be a decisive first step.
Photo: Image via Stephanie Asher (Flickr)