ABA Strategic Review Committee Recommends Elimination of Standardized Test Requirement

Yesterday, the ABA publicly released an April 25 memo recommending the elimination of the standardized test requirement for admission to law school. The full memorandum can be found here.

As the memo notes, the ABA previously considered the elimination of the standardized test requirement in 2018, but ultimately it did not go through. However, it's been an ongoing topic of conversation since then. Many observers were surprised at the ABA's blanket approval of law school use of the GRE in admissions after a less-than-positive report from an external consultant. In hindsight, that decision may have previewed the elimination of any testing requirement. The recent LSAC announcement of an alternative path to law school admission also makes a bit more sense now.

It's important to note what the recommendation says and what it doesn't. Under the proposed language, law schools will not be required to accept a standardized test from applicants. However, they remain free to consider standardized tests (alongside undergraduate performance, work experience, and other factors) when evaluating applicants for their capacity to succeed in law school and the bar exam.

What this recommendation would do, if adopted, is put the power in the hands of individual law schools to determine whether they will require a standardized test from some, all, or none of their applicants. It also won't necessarily change the weight schools actually give standardized tests in their admissions process, which has always been left up to individual schools' discretion.

Furthermore, this is only a recommendation. There are a series of steps—committee approval, a comment period, a full house vote—before this would actually be finalized. Until it is approved, standardized tests remain a requirement.

We'd like to offer some context for the recommendation, as well as the implications of any possible change.

The move to eliminate a testing requirement isn't surprising. As the Strategic Review Committee notes in its report, "medical, dental, pharmacy, business, and architecture school accreditors" do not require a standardized test for admission. On the undergraduate side, some states are eliminating the requirement for admission to college, and California has eliminated the consideration of standardized tests for undergraduate admission altogether. However, the LSAT has long been a requirement for law school admission, and even the relatively recent decision to allow the use of the GRE was contentious. Even now, several years after the GRE began to be accepted at law schools, only about 2% of matriculants to law school last year relied on the GRE.

If the recommended changes are adopted, we still suspect that most schools would continue to at least accept a standardized test score, even if they choose not to require one. Law schools have many years of data tracking the performance of enrolled students based on their standardized test scores. Both LSAC and ETS have offered studies demonstrating that their tests are reasonably predictive of first-year law school success, and are more predictive than undergraduate GPA alone. Law schools have an obligation under Standard 501 to only accept students who they believe can succeed—and the easiest way of demonstrating compliance with that obligation may be to continue considering standardized test scores.

Another question is how U.S. News & World Report will respond given the prominence and influence of their law school rankings. In 2011, U.S. News indicated they would continue to factor test scores into the rankings even if the ABA changed their policy, but things may have changed in the 10+ years since then. We will note that U.S. News does continue to factor in test scores for its ranking of other programs that are test-optional (for example, business schools), and their methodology has the effect of penalizing schools that enroll large numbers of students who apply without a standardized test. If similar methodology is implemented for the law school rankings, this would serve as a real deterrent to widespread implementation of test-optional admissions for law schools. One need only look at law school merit scholarship practices to see the influence the rankings have over admissions behavior. Law schools often—usually—give merit-based aid to students based in large part on their LSAT (or GRE) scores in order to keep up in the rankings arms race.

Applicant behavior is another factor to consider. Even if law schools go test-optional, will applicants stop taking standardized tests? Right now, standardized tests offer a couple of distinct advantages to applicants. First, they offer a measure of certainty. With years of data, many applicants can reasonably estimate their chances of admission to different law schools based on their LSAT/GRE score and their undergraduate GPA. We wonder if applicants would want to forego the increased confidence in outcomes that standardized tests offer. Applicants are also acutely aware of the high cost of legal education, and the connection between test scores and merit scholarships. Having a standardized test score can mean tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings for applicants in the form of scholarships, which is a powerful incentive to take the test even if it's "optional."

Given the combined forces of institutional inertia, desire to comply with Standard 501, and the rankings carrot/stick, it is very possible that a formal change in ABA policy may amount to very limited actual change by law school admissions offices in practice. That said, that assessment could shift if the number of applicants to law schools declines significantly. So far, there are 11.7% fewer applicants this year than last, and we're likely to only be 2-3% higher than the prior years by the end of the application cycle. Fewer applicants in the future could motivate law schools to increase their flexibility, something anyone who was around for the admission cycles of 2011-2016 (when applications took a nosedive) will understand. Applicants, meanwhile, are unlikely to change their behavior en masse unless admissions offices eliminate the current incentives to take a standardized test.

Ultimately, it is impossible to know for sure what will happen as a result of this recommendation. The policy changes could end up going no further than this stage of the process. On the other hand, the environment feels far more receptive to this type of change than it has in the past when test-optional policies were considered. There will undoubtedly be a vigorous debate, and we will see the eventual effects of these possible changes down the line.