February 25th, 2016 / By

The University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law has decided to accept GRE scores from applicants. The school will also accept LSAT scores, with applicants free to choose between the tests. (Note, though, that an applicant who takes the LSAT must submit that score; that applicant may choose only whether to submit a GRE score as well.)

Is Arizona’s move an attempt to attract more students in a weak market for legal education? Undoubtedly–the school’s press release admits as much. But that doesn’t mean that the change is bad for prospective students or legal education. Weak markets should prompt innovation. Arizona has taken a number of other steps to make legal education more accessible and attractive to students: It slashed tuition (twice) for nonresidents and created a BA program in law.

Here’s why I like Arizona’s latest innovation as much as the other two.

The Role of Standardized Tests

Universities adopted standardized tests to increase access to higher education. Before the debut of standardized testing, students from weak high schools or low-profile colleges had difficulty proving their ability to compete in university programs. Standardized tests leveled the playing field, allowing admissions officers to evaluate applicants from a wider range of schools.

Tests serve this purpose if they meet a simple criterion: their scores correlate with success in an academic program. That’s it. The test doesn’t need to mimic work in the program; nor does it have to predict post-graduate success. Standardized tests serve their admissions function if scores on the test correlate with grades in the admitting program.

Research shows that LSAT scores correlate with 1L grades, so the LSAT is an appropriate test to inform law school admissions. That, however, doesn’t mean it’s the only test with that property. The University of Arizona performed a study that shows that the GRE also correlates with law school grades for students admitted to that school. If the GRE and LSAT both predict academic success at a particular law school, there’s no reason to force students to take one test rather than the other. (Note that the focused nature of Arizona’s study is not unusual; LSAC also validates the LSAT for individual schools.)

Is the LSAT Special?

I’ve heard some comments that the LSAT has a special relationship to legal education, that it demonstrates an ability to “think like a lawyer” better than other standardized tests would. I don’t know of any research to support that claim. Studies focus on the correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades, not on broader measures of thinking like a lawyer.

The mental abilities tested on the LSAT certainly contribute to lawyerly thinking. Reading comprehension, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning (as tested on the LSAT) are skills that all lawyers use. But so are the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning tested on the GRE. I’ve often thought, in fact, that law students would benefit from stronger skills in quantitative reasoning. If we test for those skills, we will find more of them in our classrooms.

Conversely, I think the LSAT promotes a type of rigid logic that omits many of the analytic skills needed for lawyering. The “analytical reasoning” section, for example, presents situations like this one:

A university library budget committee must reduce exactly five of eight areas of expenditure — G, L, M, N, P, R, S, and W — in accordance with the following conditions:

  1. If both G and S are reduced, W is also reduced.
  2. If N is reduced, neither R nor S is reduced.
  3. If P is reduced, L is not reduced.
  4. Of the three areas L, M, and R, exactly two are reduced.

That’s an intriguing logic problem, but it aligns poorly with most of the problems that lawyers address. Facts are rarely this rigid–and lawyers shouldn’t expect them to be. Most lawyers press their clients to ask whether L, M, and R can all be reduced–not to accept as a given that “exactly two are reduced.” And most lawyers try to figure out a way to reduce G and S without reducing W.

Lawyers sometimes navigate rigid constraints like the ones in LSAT questions, but this is not the sine qua non of lawyering. That work requires a combination of verbal, logical, and quantitative skills that the GRE may measure as well (or even better?) than the LSAT.

Advantages for Students

Allowing applicants to substitute the GRE for the LSAT offers numerous advantages for prospective students. First, the option can help applicants showcase their abilities. If an applicant shines in the type of quantitative reasoning tested on the GRE, and if those scores correlate with 1L grades, then why shouldn’t the applicant be able to present the GRE scores? Another applicant’s abilities might emerge more clearly on the LSAT; applicants can choose the test that suits them.

Second, the GRE is more convenient to take than the LSAT. LSAC administers the LSAT just four times per year at a limited number of test centers. ETS offers the GRE year round at a larger number of test centers.

Third, the GRE is cheaper to prep for than the LSAT. Princeton Review charges $499 for a self-paced, online GRE prep course; for the LSAT, the same type of course costs $799. An “ultimate” package for the GRE starts at $799 (brought down to $649 with a prominently displayed coupon), while the “ultimate” LSAT course starts at $1,249 (no coupon offered).

Finally, the GRE gives applicants much more flexibility. A student who takes the GRE can apply to graduate programs in history, philosophy, biochemistry, business, computer science, and (at the University of Arizona) law. A classmate who takes the LSAT has just one option: law.

Critics of Arizona’s GRE option seem to worry that prospective historians will be suckered into law school if their GRE scores count toward that end. Perhaps–although today’s applicants have extensive information about the costs and benefits of law school. If a prospective student weighs that information and decides to pursue law rather than history, I’d like to remove expensive obstacles like taking the LSAT on top of the GRE.

Flexibility, meanwhile, cuts both ways. I’ve known students who took the LSAT and then decided against law school. To pursue a graduate degree, those students had to prep for and take the GRE. Arizona’s approach would allow a student to aim for law school, take the GRE, and then apply those test results to an entirely different field.

Unless we can show that law school truly is in a class by itself–different in kind from the large number of challenging graduate programs that rely upon the GRE–why not let students take a single test?

Speaking of History . . .

As a college senior, I planned to pursue a PhD in history; I took the GRE and began filling out applications. Part way through that process, however, I changed my goal to law school. I quickly prepped for the LSAT and took that test at the last available opportunity.

I earned exactly the same score that I had achieved on the GRE.

[Updated at 4:00 p.m. to reflect the excellent comment of James Grimmelmann]



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