The Future of the LSAT - Part 2

    LSAT Prep

    4151566643_9fef270924_bTwo weeks ago I started a discussion about what I believe the future holds for the LSAT, and I did so by first examining the test's history from its creation in early 1948 to the present-day form. What that timeline shows is that the LSAT is far from static; it evolves in response to law schools and test takers and much else, and while the changes of the last few decades may seem more subtle than the large-scale refinements of the tumultuous '80s, it's all but certain that future, and potentially wildly divergent, incarnations await us.

    To that point, I concluded Part 1 with the following sentiment: "But if history tells us anything it's that this test is prone to revisions, both large and small, and the likelihood of it remaining in its current state forever is, frankly, nil. Change is inevitable. What that change may entail, however, is a matter of some debate, and in Part 2 I'll explore what I believe to be the most probable outcomes."

    So here we are. We know where the test has been, and often why it's been amended as it has. But what does the future hold?

    I can envision four reasonable possibilities, ordered below by neither likelihood nor appeal:

     

    1. The LSAT stays the same

    First off, this is undeniably the most boring speculation, so I won't spend much time on it. But it's in the realm of possibility (and I'll explain why), so it does deserve a brief mention.

    Few tests are as fastidiously crafted, and well-regarded, as the LSAT, and there's always a reasonable argument to be made in favor of the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy. As discussed before, the past 25 years or so have seen a number of tweaks to the format employed currently, but nothing remotely approaching a drastic overhaul. One imagines that it's possible with each tweak the test makers must feel they've inched ever closer to test "perfection." If that's the case—at least in the minds of those who make it—then it seems odd that they'd throw much, if any, of it away in favor of a radical redesign or wholesale revision. 

    That said, and to reiterate, the LSAT isn't timeless, or vacuum-sealed, and the same goes for the audience for whom the test is made. Change to some degree seems an unavoidable consequence of the dynamic nature of, well, you, the test taker. While only time will tell how drastic that change will ultimately be, let's explore a few likely possibilities.

     

    2. The LSAT gets easier

    I can hear a chorus of future test takers squealing in delight at the mere thought of this outcome. Before you get too excited though, let me explain a few things. First, "difficulty," as I've discussed in prior posts, is remarkably subjective: it's exceptionally hard to quantify, and really only means anything if taken in the most broad, far-reaching sense. "Question 17 was brutal!" might hold true for most people, but that's certainly no guarantee it's true for you. Or for me. Or for anyone in particular.

    What I mean by this possible benevolence then has to be considered with respect to that subjective, or outlier, notion. The reasons that I bring it up at all are partly based on the observation that test taker numbers have dropped significantly in the past decade, and—as so many suppositions about "what's to come" must be—partly anecdotal. Let me explain both.

    First, numbers. LSAT attendees have hit near-record lows in the past few years, and that obviously is worrisome for LSAC, the group that produces the test. Now think how you might combat that as a test maker. How do you reverse steadily, unrelentingly declining sales? You rethink the product. What if you made the test itself more appealing? What if you made it more approachable, more...user-friendly? Imagine a student uncertain about pursuing a law degree, in large part (and as is often the case) due to the perceived unpredictability of LSAT success. Now imagine that same student gets reliable word that the test she fears isn't the monster it used to be, as internal adjustments have been made in her favor. Wow! She'd be profoundly, and legitimately, emboldened! She'd rush to take the thing. And that's exactly what LSAC wants (and arguably needs). Now I sincerely doubt the test makers would ever pursue a campaign publicizing this sort of change, but there's at least a well-reasoned argument to be made in favor of the change itself.

    Secondly, it's no secret that law school was for several years a questionable bet: hiring trends post-graduation have slowed, starting salaries have dropped, and the cost of a degree has never been higher. Thankfully that's really, really reversed itself the past year or two, but for a long while it was a formula for some serious hesitation if you're a potential applicant, especially if you're an applicant with the mindset to both recognize the situation and pursue attractive alternatives (an MBA, for instance). So what seems to have happened, and again this is admittedly somewhat anecdotal, is not only a thinning of the herd, but a particularly aggressive thinning of the best of the herd. Simply put, high-scoring test takers seem to have fallen off a bit more dramatically than the rest the past few years, as they realized more acutely than their peers that law school was no longer a golden ticket. I say "somewhat" anecdotal because there is actually evidence to support this: students in the 170-174 range have showed the largest percentage drop in applicant numbers, at over 20%. Granted that's students applying, and thus not necessarily test takers themselves (they could have the score but not use it), however it strongly indicates there's a heavy bleed of high scorers. What do you do as a test maker determined to maintain a balanced bell curve of scores if your highest performing audience stops showing up? You loosen the reins. You have to. Unless you make the test itself easier and slide some underperformers up, your bell curve begins to balloon on the low end. Is this scientifically tested and verified? No, of course not. But it's an outcome that doesn't seem altogether far-fetched to me, and may in fact become inevitable.

    Related note #1: if this happens, or is even happening now (as I suspect may be the case), it won't last long. The legal slump is quickly correcting itself, and law school is a more attractive option than it's been in many years. What you'll see as a natural outcome is that test taker numbers, particularly those of high achieving test takers, will climb, and any need on the part of LSAC to soften things up will be wiped out. Now is a spectacularly fortunate time to take the LSAT.

    Related note #2: you'll notice here that I haven't included "The LSAT gets harder." In part that's because too much talk of difficulty runs counter to all the difficulty-is-subjective commentary above and becomes, in my opinion, a bit pointless, but also because I see a notable shift in the direction of more punishing as highly unlikely. You've got a test struggling to attract an audience, and possibly losing the most-capable of what dwindling audience lingers...are you really then going to make efforts to intimidate and possibly alienate those who remain? Seems doubtful. Arguments could be made that the LSAT has gotten harder, or at least less predictable, over the past 15-20 years as preparation resources have grown more insightful and more accessible, but I'm not here to describe trends of the past. 

     

    3. The LSAT goes digital

    Just as LSAC is mindful of its test taking audience, so too is it aware of the other exams catering to its demographic. In particular the GRE, GMAT, and, to a lesser extent, MCAT. And what do those three tests have in common aside from an LSAT-consistent audience (age, background, and education-wise at least)? They're all taken on a computer. The LSAT, conspicuously, is not.

    Digital testing comes with a host of advantages that pencil-and-paper exams simply can't offer. They tend to be more straightforward to administer since there's no distribution and collection (not to mention printing and shipping) of materials, no proctors to hire and train, no facilities to find and oversee, and all the other tedious tasks of analog testing. They're extremely secure, since each tester has access only to the visuals on-screen, rather than hard copy content. They can be scored quickly and easily, and virtually incontestably, right in the testing room and immediately upon completion. And perhaps most compelling of all they're almost ludicrously profitable: not only do they require none of the support systems of a test like the LSAT—mentioned briefly above, but really think of just the multiple proctors passing out and collecting materials, calling time, monitoring potential cheats, etc—but because there's no need for those systems, centers can offer exam opportunities essentially every day, year-round. In short, computer-based tests are an attractive prospect.

    Of course, if you're giving this much thought you've no doubt already enumerated a handful of differences between an LSAT and, say, a GRE that make the LSAT a greater challenge to offer and administer digitally in the same fashion. Most notably the fact that GREs and GMATs, and even the slightly less accessible MCAT, can be made available so frequently without fear of widespread content leakage because they test easily-altered concepts such as math and grammar. You can trust you'll see the Pythagorean Theorem tested on each, but the question permutations testing it can number in the hundreds without fear of distribution or duplication. A question bank of tens of thousands exists for Math and ensures that individual test takers are each encountering a sufficiently unique exam.

    Not so with the LSAT. Consider: in a single year's worth of Logic Games only twelve are made public, four from each of the three released tests. Twelve! Can you imagine a sample that limited being used for a test given weekly? By the second month people would walk in with every conceivable LSAT memorized, essentially invalidating the whole enterprise.

    So clearly if the test were to morph into widespread, readily-available digital form some serious changes to the current construct would be needed. But the appeal of computerized exams is almost certainly too great to be avoided forever, and my suspicion is that we'll see a tidal shift in that direction before the decade is out. The days of Number 2 pencils are, well, numbered.

     

    4. The LSAT goes away

    A joyous chorus once again, I imagine. While I hate to put a damper on that, let me say two things: one, I find the idea of total abandonment of the LSAT remarkably far fetched, at least in the LS time frame of anyone reading this; two, for the foreseeable future there will ALWAYS be a standardizing measure needed to compare and validate applicants. The LSAT may not be forever, but unless there's a fundamental change to law school, and possibly even the education system itself, some form of consistent, universal, and quantifiable assessment will stand between the applicants and the accepted.

    So why bother with this possibility at all then? Because a select few law schools have already begun accepting applicants who haven't taken the LSAT. You read that correctly. And there's talk, legitimately informed talk, that this trend may continue! These schools, motivated by the concern that fewer test takers means fewer tuition checks, and capitalizing on a recent change in ABA policy allowing schools to fill up to 10% of their entering class seats with non-LSAT applicants, have instead begun to consider other criteria: GPA, prior standardized test performance (SAT, ACT, GRE, etc), and overall fitness and qualifications. Standardized tests are still conspicuously present, but the LSAT itself is not among them.

    I feel I should put this unambiguously into perspective though, as it's easy for the LSAT leery to swoon a bit at the notion. First, we're talking just two out of the 204 ABA-approved law schools, or less than 1%, and then only for a maximum of 10% of entering 1Ls. These are not imposing figures. Second, the schools in question—The State University of New York-Buffalo Law School and the University of Iowa College of Law—are not what I'd call trendsetters in the world of J.D.-granting institutions. When Yale or Harvard or even a top-14 adopts this policy you'll see a genuine clamor, but for now a #22 (a very respectable Iowa) and a #87 (SUNY) simply don't carry the weight needed to snowball the trend.

    Third, and so much more crucially than the first two that I've given it a new paragraph, this is decidedly NOT a good thing for would-be law students, and once that's broadly recognized this ends swiftly. What's the harm, you ask? The dilemma here is that the LSAT isn't just useful for schools, it's also incredibly, invaluably useful for applicants! It's in near-universal use because it's a remarkably reliable predictor of how you'll actually fair in law school. Tons of data backs that up! People who understand and appreciate the test and its purpose realize unequivocally that it's a trying, but entirely worthwhile, experience, and foregoing it—out of fear of failure, or simply to save a few hundred bucks on prep and the test fee (a justification so absurd and duplicitous given your impending six-figure debt I cringe at even quoting it)—is potentially more death sentence than lifeline. I could hardly improve on Elie Mystal's scathing analysis, so I'll simply encourage those interested in learning more to read his excellent interpretation.

    All of this is to say that there has most certainly been recent talk of "the death of the LSAT," but that's either vastly overblown, or at least severely premature. The LSAT isn't going anywhere any time soon, and while I can understand the frustration many feel in coming to terms with that, understand that it serves an important purpose, for schools and applicants both. Cherish your chance to test the waters, and to test them with an exam as predictable--and beatable--as this one is. And for those of you committed to the LSAT but wondering if that commitment is necessary given just a little more time, take the plunge: the American Bar Association itself is actively seeking to eliminate the use of alternative law school admission tests. The LSAT's here to stay for quite some time, and, perhaps paradoxically, that's really good news!

     

    Mostly, and in conclusion, this was meant as a fun exercise, and hopefully the beginning of an engaging dialogue, about what the future may hold for a test so central to the lives of so many. Please keep in mind that I'm no more privy to that future than anyone else outside the confines of LSAC—and every experience makes it abundantly clear that they don't know either—so this is idle speculation caged in current trends and statistics, with a dash of desire thrown in for good measure.

    I hope you've enjoyed my musings, and I'd love to hear yours in return. Thoughts, predictions, and strongly-worded criticisms all heartily encouraged below!

    Image "Ludicrous Speed" courtesy of Dan DeChiaro.

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