A recent American Bar Association decision to permit law school admissions to accept the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, in lieu of the traditional Law School Admission Test, LSAT, might seem like an inevitability.
Already, more than 70 of about 200 ABA-accredited law schools across the U.S. say applicants can submit GRE scores, having interpreted the association's standards as allowing them to do so. One institution, the University of Arizona, took such an approach back in 2016.
Until now, GRE use in law school admissions has been limited and controversial. Some law school leaders and observers deem the new flexibility a crucial step to break down restrictive admissions gateways into law programs, particularly for members of underrepresented groups in higher education.
The announcement made official what had been "a growing fait accompli," said Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, an organization advocating for restricted use of standardized exams.
The ABA's move cuts to the heart of an ongoing debate on entrance exams and whether they ensure students will succeed academically or simply exclude certain groups. It also sets up law schools as a key front to watch after the test-optional movement swept undergraduate admissions during the pandemic.
What did the ABA do?
Formal action taken by an ABA panel at a November meeting amends a part of the association's rules known as Section 503, which requires law schools to use a "valid and reliable" test as part of their admissions practices. The LSAT had been the de facto sole choice to meet the standard, as schools needed to prove other tests could sufficiently measure students' academic abilities.
Some law schools have long used the GRE and other standardized entrance exams, but they are not ABA accredited, and they are generally thought to be less prestigious.
The ABA says Section 503 exists to gauge students' ability to complete a law school education. But college access advocates, including FairTest, have lobbied to abolish Section 503 altogether, arguing it inhibits candidates who might not match a traditional profile. These groups have not succeeded, and "so some view allowing alternative exams as a positive step," Schaeffer said.
Research published last year in the New York University Law Review lends credence to assessment reformers' logic.
In recent decades, the research said, Section 503 became "a significant barrier to entry with disparate negative impacts on" racial minority groups, women, low-income applicants and those with disabilities. Black and Hispanic students represent less than 8% and 14%, respectively, of the fall 2020 class at ABA-accredited law schools.
Allowing students opportunities to take exams other than the LSAT might broaden law schools' applicant pools, including those students from different disciplines, testing experts say. And in years prior to the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of more students have taken the GRE annually compared to the LSATs.
Similar arguments have been made in reworking undergraduate admissions paths. Extracting the SAT and ACT from these processes, experts say, likely would open possibilities for historically underrepresented applicants who can't afford the same exhaustive test prep as their wealthier counterparts. Research indicates test-optional policies modestly boosts campus body diversity.
But the law review article says serious attempts to rescind Section 503 would likely be met with complaints of declining standards at schools.
"In the early days of accreditation, 'raising standards' was used to justify implementation of requirements that drove non-elite law schools — many of which served primarily women, racial and linguistic minorities, and non-traditional students — out of business," the research said.
Efforts pushing for law schools to replace the LSAT have ignited fierce debate.
In 2016, the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law became the first ABA-recognized school to accept GRE scores. It was seeking to diversify its incoming classes, said the law school's dean, Marc Miller. It found in a study the year prior that the GRE could reliably predict first-year students' grades.
Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, conducted the study.
The Arizona law school's move drew the wrath of the Law School Admissions Council, or LSAC, the nonprofit that controls the LSAT and the common application process used among ABA-accredited law schools.
The council in 2016 threatened to expel the U of Arizona from its membership, prompting roughly 150 law school deans to come to the school's defense. They wrote the council saying its warning was "unwarranted under the existing rules and sends a terrible message to law schools about experimentation in the admissions process."
LSAC backed down, and the next year, Harvard Law School became the next institution to greenlight the GRE in admissions.
"I can assure you LSAC didn't threaten Harvard," Miller said.
The recent ABA decision is the culmination of years of work since the U of Arizona reworked its law admissions processes, Miller said. It also offers a clear signal to the remaining 130 or so ABA-accredited law schools that don't accept GRE scores that they can do so, he said.
Many have been waiting for such clarity, Miller added.
Whether law schools will broadly adopt such policies remains to be seen. Only a small slice, less than 1% of the fall 2020 ABA law school class, was admitted with GRE scores.
Jeff Thomas, executive director of legal programs of test-prep company Kaplan, doesn't think the admissions landscape will change dramatically unless a critical mass of law schools accept the GRE — and schools can still choose not to.
Most students also are applying to more than one law school, and if just one of those institutions requires the LSAT, it renders moot the flexibility the GRE admissions policies provide.
Under current reporting procedures, students who take the LSAT will have their scores automatically transmitted to every law school to which they apply, Thomas said. An applicant could opt to send their GRE results, but if they also sit for the LSAT, admissions officials could view both test results.
At the U of Arizona's law school, around 100 applicants a year submit their GRE results, according to Cary Lee Cluck, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid. More than 1,780 hopefuls applied for the school's fall 2020 class.
Miller said the school has accepted around 18 to 20 applicants with GRE scores each year out of recent classes that range between 128 and 156 students. He said the school is "absolutely neutral" between students who apply with GRE and LSAT scores.
Law student outcomes will likely be scrutinized in the wake of the decision, as skepticism lingers that the GRE holds applicants to the same standards as the LSAT.
An ABA document summarizing the change to Section 503 reiterates another standard that says a school "shall only admit applicants who appear capable of satisfactorily completing its program of legal education and being admitted to the bar."
An ABA-commissioned study could not conclude whether the GRE should be used for admissions procedures, though it stated if "certain plausible assumptions are made" the LSAT and GRE "might be used defensively and interchangeably for law school decisions."
Miller took issue with benchmarking other exams against the LSAT, though, noting the ABA standard allows for other valid tests.
John White, chair of LSAC's trustee board and law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' law school, deferred comment to an LSAC spokesperson.
The spokesperson in an emailed statement expressed doubt over the ABA's move, saying there are "significant questions" about the GRE's validity in law school admissions but that the LSAC would not second-guess the decision.
"We will continue to innovate to ensure that the LSAT remains the gold standard for law school admission, and we will deliver unparalleled programs and services specifically designed to attract and help diverse, talented individuals succeed," the spokesperson said.
Law schools may also accept both tests, but still prefer the LSAT to the GRE. "It's the million dollar question," said Thomas, of Kaplan.
In 2018, when Kaplan surveyed law schools nationwide, of those that accepted the GRE, 42% said an applicant who submits an LSAT score has an admissions advantage, while 58% said neither the LSAT nor the GRE provided a leg up.
Nearly half of those law schools said they weigh the LSAT and GRE scores similarly. Kaplan has not conducted an updated version of the poll, and Thomas said a lot has changed in law admissions.
He said that in similar circumstances, business schools began accepting GRE scores instead of the Graduate Management Admission Test about a decade ago. But there was never a mass migration from students matriculating with the GRE instead of the GMAT, "despite virtually every one accepting" the GRE, Thomas said.
"I'm not sure we'll see students abandoning the LSAT in favor of the GRE," Thomas said.