May 14, 2018

Council adopts proposal to make standardized test optional for law schools

The requirement that American Bar Association-approved law schools mandate that 1L applicants submit a standardized law school admissions test as part of their admissions application would become optional under changes adopted by Council of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar at its meeting on May 11 in Washington, D.C.

The passage followed a recommendation made last month by the Council’s Standards Review Committee (SRC), which had considered the particular matter for months and the general question of the role of an admissions test in the standards for several years. The proposal had been the subject of a public hearing in April, and the SRC and the Council had received many written comments on the matter.

The next step for the standardized test recommendation – and others approved May 11 -- would be review of the matter by the ABA House of Delegates, which meets in early August in Chicago.

The changes to Standards 501 and 503 of the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools would eliminate the requirement of a “valid and reliable test” as part of a law school’s admissions process. Debate over what constitutes such a test and its role in the standards has been growing for several years since some law schools were granted variances to explore the use of nontraditional tests under certain, limited conditions.

These conditions are set out in two interpretations to the current Standard 503. Subsequently, in February 2016, the University of Arizona College of Law, based on a study done with the Education Testing Service (ETS), announced it had concluded that ETS’s Graduate Record Exam (GRE) was a valid and reliable law school admissions test that it could require in lieu of the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) under Interpretation 503-1. More than 15 law schools have concluded that the GRE, in addition to the LSAT, is a valid and reliable test for their programs.

Developed and administered by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), the LSAT has been the test used by schools for more than a half century. Highly predictive of student success in the 1L year and beyond, law schools have relied on the LSAT in their admissions processes. Additionally, the LSAC has developed other services and programs on which law schools have relied, making the LSAC one of the key national legal education organizations.

Significantly, the Council also adopted a new interpretation recommend by the SRC – viewed as an explainer – that would establish a “rebuttable presumption” that recognizes the centrality of a valid and reliable admissions test in law schools’ admissions policies and practices. It provides that a school whose admissions policy and process were called into question by the Council would presumptively be out of compliance with the revised Standard 501 if it did not include a valid and reliable admissions test as part of its policy. Standard 501 states that a school must “maintain sound admission policies and practices consistent with the standards, its mission and the objectives of its program of legal education,” and that it “shall only admit applicants who appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar.”

Referring to the current approach of the standards for a test, Robert Glidden, a public member of the Council and former university president and provost who served on the Accreditation Committee, summed up the thoughts of many on the Council when he said, “It’s just too messy.”

Following the meeting, Barry Currier, managing director of ABA Accreditation and Legal Education, said he expected law schools to continue relying on an admissions test in their admissions policies, and he expected that, for now, schools would primarily rely on the LSAT.

“The use of tests other than the LSAT, including the GRE, may add to the group of individuals who wish to study law, and that might be a positive development,” Currier said. Further, he noted that the removal of the requirement of a test opens opportunities for innovation in how law schools might attract individuals to law study who can contribute to the ongoing challenges of diversifying the profession, increasing access to justice and accelerating other needed reforms in the legal profession.

“While there are admissions tests aimed at other professions which are taken by all or most of the applicants to those professional schools, law is the only profession that requires such a test in its accreditation standards,” Currier said. “Given the history and utility of the LSAT and the role the LSAC has played as an important organization within legal education beyond the test itself, the use of other tests, or the option of no test at all, are likely to be supplemental to, and not a replacement for, the LSAT in legal education generally.”

Under the procedures of the Council, the ABA House of Delegates can concur with the recommendation, in which case the changes will be effective at the adjournment of the House’s meeting in August, or the House can reject the proposal and return it to the Council. The Council may then return the proposal for a second consideration. If the House again does not concur, the Council may then reaffirm the action that it took to approve the standard and it will become effective. Alternatively, the Council may choose to reconsider its action. In either event, the final decision for this and any standard rests with the Council.

In other public business, the Council approved SRC recommendations on the agenda that included:

  • New language for Standards 205 and 206, which deal with nondiscrimination and diversity and inclusion, that adds “gender identity” to the list of characteristics that are covered by those provisions. Further, the new language, consistent with requests to the SRC from several religiously affiliated law schools, notes that the standard does not require a religiously affiliated law school to act inconsistently with the essential elements of its religious values and beliefs provided that the actions are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Changes in Standard 303 and Standard 304 covering simulation, clinic and field placement. Essentially, the change re-inserts language that earlier had been proposed to be deleted. The standard now includes language that an experiential course be “primarily experiential in nature,” and that “direct supervision of the student’s performance by the faculty member” be inserted both for simulation and clinic courses and for field placements.

  • Revisions for Standard 306 that would allow law schools to provide one-third of its required credits be taught online, including up to 10 credits in the 1L program. The current rule limits the number of such credits to 15. ABA standards now require at least 83 credit hours for graduation although most schools require more, with the usual range being between 86 and 90 credits. As adopted, the revised standard would effectively raise the number of credits for distance learning to at least 28 credit hours and, in many cases, 30 credit hours.

  • A reworking of Standard 601, which deletes the requirement of a written assessment for the library during the reaccreditation process. Some law librarians had requested the change, but a written report is not required now for other nonacademic areas of the law school.

The Council also approved a restructuring plan, with bylaw and standards and rules changes, that will eliminate the SRC and the Council’s Accreditation Committee, returning the work of the ABA law school accreditation process to the Council itself.

The intent of these charges is improvement of the effectiveness and the efficiency of the process. The bylaw changes need approval of the ABA Board of Governors and the section membership, which will be voted on at the section’s business meeting at the ABA Annual Meeting in August.

The House of Delegates will be asked to concur in these changes at its meeting in August. The restructuring plan includes moving the normal cycle for comprehensive review of a law school program from 7 to 10 years and increasing the use of the interim monitoring process, which tracks school performance each year and provides increased oversight of schools about which the Council may have concerns.