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WFU embraces GRE, others less enthusiastic

Wake goes all in, rest playing wait-and-see

In November, Wake Forest University School of Law became the first law school in the Carolinas to accept the Graduate Record Exam in lieu of the Law School Admissions Test to evaluate prospective students.

So far, no others have shown any inclination to veer from the purported predictive powers of the all-mighty LSAT.

“Apparently a faculty committee is in the early stages of examining this issue, but it’s too early for anyone to issue any comment on it,” said Forrest Norman of Duke Law’s communications office.

Bianca Mack, assistant dean for admissions at the University of North Carolina School of Law, sees the infant endeavor as one in which schools are proceeding at their own risk.

While a UNC faculty member or two may have inquired about GRE acceptance, Mack said, “it’s not something where as an institution we’ve had these conversations yet.”

The reluctance to two-time the LSAT, especially with an independently unsubstantiated partner, is prevalent among South Carolina’s schools, too.

“Frankly, we haven’t even discussed using the GRE at this point,” Charleston School of Law dean Andy Abrams said, adding that he wouldn’t rule out the possibility somewhere down the line.

University of South Carolina School of Law Dean Robert Wilcox said that USC has considered the alternative, pioneered in 2016 by the University of Arizona School of Law, but has not conducted the independent, American Bar Association-required study to determine whether the GRE is “valid and reliable” as it pertains to the study of law.

“We are not prepared at this time to possibly risk accreditation by moving forward in reliance on other studies,” the school said in an email to Lawyers Weekly.

‘Valid and reliable’

Beginning in late 2015, Arizona, Wake Forest, and the University of Hawaii School of Law became the first three law schools to conduct validation studies in collaboration with the agency that administers the GRE, the Educational Testing Service.

Each school found that the GRE is a good predictor of a student’s first-year law school grades, and therefore meets the ABA’s standard of a “valid and reliable” admissions test. Arizona immediately began inviting GRE takers to apply to law school.

Recently, working with 21 U.S. law schools, the ETS completed its own national validity study that it claims “empirically” confirms that the GRE is a valid predictor of grades and a “reliable tool” for admissions committees.

In fact, the study suggests that “the GRE test is about as related to the LSAT as the LSAT is to itself.”

But for schools seeking guidance from the voice of the legal profession, the ABA, there has been only silence.

Other than its Standard 503 mandate that a “valid and reliable” test be used to assist law schools in evaluating a prospective student’s capability to complete a legal education program, the ABA has remained mum on the GRE. An ABA spokesperson told Lawyers Weekly that while a the agency is considering a formal position, it doesn’t have an official stance at this time. In a news release, it described any test change as “a radical departure in law school admissions.”

Though the standard doesn’t prescribe a particular weight that a school should give the applicant’s score, it does state that if a school uses a test other than the LSAT, it must first establish the test’s validity and reliability.

The schools that have conducted independent studies are confident that they have done just that, while others are more comfortable sitting ringside than actually throwing their hats in the ring.

Doesn’t happen overnight

Replacing or supplementing the heavily relied-upon LSAT is not something that, even if they wanted to, every school is in an immediate position to do.

  1. Rich Leonard, dean of Campbell Law School, said that in order to complete the required independent study, a school needs a sufficient number of students who have taken both the LSAT and the GRE, and those students are in short supply at Campbell. Devoid of ABA guidance, Leonard — like Wilcox at USC — wishes to remain devoid of ABA scrutiny.

“We’re just sitting right now to see what else happens,” Leonard said. “We’re not going to go to the GRE and defend ourselves in reaccreditation in a couple of years. If norms change, we’ll probably change, too.”

Officials at the Elon School of Law essentially echo that sentiment, telling Lawyers Weekly that its small sample size of two-score students would make a validity study challenging, and that while the school is not actively considering the GRE, it is monitoring what’s going on.

“We have a wait-and-see attitude,” said Alan Woodlief, senior associate dean for admissions. “We’ll see what experience schools have and what develops with the ABA.”

Mack, of UNC, was the assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at Arizona’s law school in 2015 when GRE talk sprang up there. She believes the wait-and-see approach is a popular one in part because in 2019, when Arizona graduates its first class of GRE admittees, a fuller assessment will be possible. Wake Forest will graduate its first GRE-admitted students in 2021.

For the risk-averse, the end of the three-year process will reveal grades, bar passage rates, and job placement statistics.

“It could go beautifully, but there’s a lot of chance that it doesn’t,” Mack said, adding that many of the subjects of recent studies are students who would score in the 95th percentile on any standardized test.

Bigger, more diverse pool

Arizona began accepting the GRE in February 2016, while Hawaii and Wake Forest waited until late 2017 to announce the change. Currently, 16 law schools — including Harvard, Northwestern, Georgetown, Columbia, and the University of Chicago — accept GRE scores in lieu of, or in addition to, the LSAT.

Rather than waiting to see, Wake Forest opted to dive into the pilot program. According to dean Suzanne Reynolds, the school shares the mission of other schools that have chosen to forego the LSAT requirement: to open its admissions process to a larger, more diverse pool of applicants, including those with STEM backgrounds who have already taken the GRE.

“While we remain committed to a small entering class, we are interested in increasing the diversity of our student body, in every respect, including educationally,” Reynolds wrote in a released statement.

Gillian Lester, dean of Columbia Law School, said that the school strives to prepare students to address challenges in an “increasingly interconnected world,” and that Columbia is devoted to putting together classes with a broad array of talents, skills, experiences, and backgrounds.

And according to Arizona’s dean, Marc Miller, the pool of GRE-takers is “vastly larger and more diverse than that of the LSAT.”

LSAT sufficient, sometimes necessary

Diversity, in all forms, is coveted by most, if not all, U.S. law schools. But many feel they can achieve both diversity and a talented student body without adding another admissions test to the process.

Leonard, Campbell’s dean, said his school is “doing just fine with the LSAT” in terms of achieving its admissions goals.

North Carolina Central University, one of the most racially diverse law schools in the Carolinas, is content using the LSAT, and will “continue to review [GRE] developments,” dean Phyllis Craig-Taylor says.

At Elon, officials tout the school as one committed to diversity. There, women outnumber men and 23 percent of the class of 2019 are students of color. Its student body is comprised of students from more than 20 states and 80 undergraduate degree programs, and its LSAT range for admitted students is broad.

Woodlief said that adding an admissions test may not be necessary for Elon, which sees the LSAT as a piece of information to consider, but employs a holistic approach to admissions and emphasizes other ways of evaluating applicants, such as undergraduate performance, work history, and candidate interviews.

“We have had students with low LSAT scores who have performed exceptionally well in law school and gone on to be stellar attorneys,” Woodlief said. “Some [indicator of success] is test-taking ability, and some is motivation, demonstrated dedication, and all those things.”

Mack, of UNC, added that prospective law students looking to “apply broadly” still need to take the LSAT. Though as many as one in four U.S. law schools have expressed interest in accepting the GRE, the vast majority, of course, do not.

“I think that many, many, many schools would jump on the GRE bandwagon if it were interchangeable, but I think there are real questions on whether or not it’s interchangeable,” Mack said.

USC’s dean, Wilcox, said that in its effort to determine “test-taker patterns” in its applicant pool, USC is asking prospective students if they took the GRE. He noted, however, that the LSAT was designed to measure specific skills necessary for first-year law school success, while the GRE is a more general assessment for other graduate programs.

For instance, quantitative reasoning, measured by the GRE, isn’t something that USC’s first-year curriculum currently seeks to develop or measure as much as information analysis, officials said, though Wilcox conceded a “general agreement” that quantitative skills can help law students be better problem-solvers.

“As the study and practice of law becomes increasingly cross-disciplinary, and lawyers’ careers become more varied, it may be that quantitative analytical skills also will come to be considered necessary for career success,” Wilcox wrote. “The question is whether things already have evolved to the point that the differences in focus of the tests are less important.”

Prediction friction

Predictably, perhaps, the Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT, expressed a similar concern. Kellye Testy, LSAC president, told the National Law Journal that the LSAC doesn’t disagree with innovation, but believes the GRE to be a “poor test for legal reasoning.” It contains a math component incongruous with law school, and supporting studies are “ridiculously flawed,” Testy said.

“It doesn’t even test analytical and critical reasoning,” she added.

Testy also believes that some schools are using the GRE to manipulate their rankings by enrolling students for whom they do not have to report LSAT scores.

“They’re using the GRE as the latest fig leaf for this,” she said.

Some may find it notable that of the 16 schools currently accepting the GRE, two (Harvard and Columbia) are ranked in the top five by U.S. News & World Report, which relies heavily on LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs. Two others, Northwestern and Georgetown, are top-15 schools (Georgetown fell out of the prestigious T14 club this year), and none fall outside the top 100.

Wake Forest is currently ranked No. 36.

Reynolds, Wake’s dean, said that her school is satisfied by its study and in accepting the GRE, will continue considering applicants’ total body of work in making admissions decisions. She knows that the vast majority of applicants will be LSAT-takers.

“But we believe that legal education and the legal profession are well-served by offering another standardized test in the admissions process,” she said.

Worth the weight?

Arizona’s dean, Marc Miller, concedes that while the LSAT has “some predictive power” regarding a student’s first-year grades, “nobody claims that it is a predictor of success in law school, or, more fundamentally, a predictor of success as an attorney.” Admissions tests can be a “useful guide” for schools and students, he said, but admissions committees are giving too much weight to numbers that should be used “in proper context rather than elevated above all else.”

It’s unclear how that resonates with schools that live and die by their median LSAT, but the ABA has stated that a school must publicly report any test score it accepts.

And even that could be rendered moot one day.

Recently, the Council for the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has put out for “notice and comment” a proposal by the ABA’s Standards and Review Committee to eliminate the requirement of any admissions test, as long as schools can demonstrate that they have “sound admission policies and practices.”

Whether the LSAT or the GRE, should it catch on at Charleston, Abrams said it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that doesn’t involve some verifiable test as part of the school’s admissions process. Presumably, Charleston is not alone in that imagining.

For decades, the LSAT has been an integral part of law school admissions, championed by many as a fine predictor of a first-year student’s fate. While a no-test policy might be a tad extreme (or not), that ball’s in the ABA’s court. It also remains to be seen how the GRE catches on (or not) in the Carolinas and beyond.

But with the Wake Forests, Georgetowns, and Harvards of the world declaring the GRE a suitable substitute for the traditionally trusty LSAT, the more general test is making a solid argument for its inclusion at admissions roundtables.

Nothing to be done but to wait and see.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher

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