The November LSAT was administered about 10 days ago, and the scores from that test aren't slated to be released until another 11 days from now. Once the LSAT is over, one of the most common complaints is that scores should come out more quickly. Given that we live in an era where tests are electronically scored and the results are transmitted nearly instantly by email, that sounds like a very reasonable complaint. So, why does it take so long for LSAT scores to appear? And couldn't they get them out a lot earlier?
To best understand what happens once you turn in your LSAT scoresheet, let's take a look at each phase of the process:
The Test Administration and Collection Phase
The first delay actually comes before most students take the LSAT. Typically, we think of the LSAT as being given on a single day, but that's not the case when the exams are considered collectively. Sure, the domestic US and Canadian LSATs are administered on the same day, but there are also Sabbath-observer LSATs (usually two days later than the "main" administration, except in June), the accommodated LSATs (sometimes up to a week later, and rarely even longer), and then the international tests (which are sometimes on the same day as the US/Canada LSAT, but often one or two days later, sometimes more). So, just out of the starting gate, the exams are often spaced out over a week, and although some of these exams are different forms, LSAC has exams all over the place and so the delays can be significant—just a week of delays are already built into the process if you are counting from the "main" administration date. Typical Delay = Up to 7 days
But, of course, we're not done with test collection delays yet, and once your test is returned to the proctors, the second hurdle comes in: getting the scoresheets physically back to LSAC. Even when things are going smoothly, this process takes a while, especially since LSATs are coming from all over the world. It could easily be a week or more for exams to come from certain spots in Asia or the Middle East, and this is if the process runs perfectly. But, as many of you know, that doesn't always happen. On rare occasion, LSATs are lost, and this can delay the scoring process significantly. The test makers have to wait until they can certify that the exams are almost certainly missing (and often at that point they will state that even if the exams are found they won't be scored due to security issues). Of course, while we hear about the exams that are permanently lost, we never hear about exams that might have been delayed for a few days or even a week. Overall, this portion of the process is actually quite time-consuming, and that's without any major issues popping up. Typical Delay = Up to 7 days
The Processing and Analysis Phase
So, after roughly 10-14 days from the main test administration date, all of the tests should be at LSAC headquarters in Newtown, PA. As they arrive, the exams are compiled and prepared for processing via optical scanning. But, because there are anywhere from 19,000 to 35,000 tests for each administration, this process isn't quick or easy. Each test comes with a test booklet, a scoresheet, and a Writing Sample, and processing these pieces and keeping everything straight takes a few days. Typical Delay = Up to 3 days
After the scoresheets are all processed, LSAC begins examining the data and making sure the test results are as expected. This includes re-examining the integrity of each question and each section, looking for patterns of cheating, and then sitting down collectively to look at any outliers and make any needed scale adjustments. If there is nothing unusual, this process probably takes an afternoon. If there are any red flags, again you could be looking at a few more additional days. Typical Delay = Up to 2 days
The Problem Student Phase
During every LSAT administration there are some student problems (as opposed to problems with the actual test content as discussed in the prior paragraph), and those can range from test takers creating a disturbance, to a stolen test, to simple identification issues, to outright cheating. Some of these issues will cause the disallowance of an LSAT score or a delay until the problem is resolved. While all of these other steps are occurring, the Test Security team is working to resolve all these issues, and while this shouldn't—in most cases—cause a further delay of the score release, it is something that requires manpower and takes time. Thus, it's an element that has to be handled, and it's one more thing that's going on. Typical Delay = Up to 3 days (but should be happening concurrently, so 0 days)
The Double-Check Phase
Last, all the info gets checked again and then dumped into the huge system that powers LSAC and student databases such as CAS. All the emails will have been set up while the test administration and processing occurred, but of course there must be a double-check of every single aspect of the test—test booklet counts, scoresheet counts, clearance of students that were flagged for issues (and marking of those not cleared to receive a score), wording on anything going out to the public in conjunction with the test, preparation of the base test files that will go to licensees, and so on. Literally hundreds of small details that need to be handled to get all the tests, process them, and then get the test and the results out to everyone. Typical Delay = Up to 2 days
When you consider that the usual LSAT score release date is about 24-31 days after the main LSAT is administered, you can see that a good portion of the time is actually used for important parts of the process. Viewed from this perspective, sometimes I'm amazed we get scores as quickly as we do!
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Image: Super Secret Hideout courtesy of The359.