Law Schools' Emphasis on LSAT
Scores Hurts Black Applicants, Report Says
KATHERINE S. MANGAN
In an effort to raise their U.S. News & World Report
rankings and avoid trouble with accreditors, law-school
admissions officers are overemphasizing standardized-test scores
and thereby discriminating against African-American applicants
whose scores, on average, are lower than those of their white
peers, according to a report due out next month.
As a result, the number of African-American students applying
to, enrolling in, and graduating from law schools continues to
decline, even as the overall figures have remained fairly
steady, according to the report's author, John Nussbaumer, an
associate dean at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, in Michigan.
"Efforts during the past 10 years to diversify America's law
schools by enrolling more African-American students have failed
because those responsible for law-school admissions and
accreditation practices have created a de facto and racially
discriminatory quota system that restricts African-American
access to the legal profession," he writes.
Mr. Nussbaumer serves on the Diversity Committee of the
American Bar Association's Section of Legal Education and
Admissions to the Bar, which accredits law schools. He is also
in the Law Professors Division of the National Bar Association,
which was founded by African-American lawyers in an era when
they were barred from the ABA.
The article, "Misuse of the Law School Admission Test: Racial
Discrimination, and the De Facto Quota System for Restricting
African-American Access to the Legal Profession," is scheduled
for publication next month in the
St. John's Law Review, a publication of the St.
John's University School of Law, in Jamaica, N.Y.
In the article, Mr. Nussbaumer charges that many law schools
use an applicant's performance on the Law School Admission Test
as the main factor in admissions decisions in order to improve
their U.S. News rankings. Admitted students' average test
scores are one of the factors the newsmagazine weighs in
creating its annual list of the nation's best law schools.
For law schools to rely so heavily on the test score, Mr.
Nussbaumer says, defies the guidelines of the Law School
Admission Council, which administers the test. Its guidelines
say the test "should be used as only one of several criteria for
evaluation and should not be given undue weight solely because
its use is convenient." The council also discourages law schools
from setting cutoff scores for admission, which "may have a
greater adverse impact upon applicants from minority groups than
upon the general applicant population."
John A. Sebert, a consultant on legal education for the
American Bar Association, said accreditors have reason to be
concerned when law schools accept many students with low test
"It's sort of a consumer-protection issue," he said on
Monday. "We want to be sure that law schools aren't admitting a
substantial number of students who are unlikely to be successful
in their program or in their attempts to pass the bar."
If schools admit large numbers of "at risk" students but
offer adequate academic support, they may still satisfy
accreditors, he said. "If they have low attrition rates and
bar-passage rates that are within the norm of ABA schools in
their jurisdiction, they're not going to get in trouble with
The ABA's legal-education section approved a rule this month
aimed at ensuring that law schools take concrete steps to
diversify their student bodies and faculties. The new rule,
which must be approved by the ABA's House of Delegates in order
to take effect, applies even to law schools in states that ban
racial preferences in admission (
The Chronicle, February 14).
Black residents make up about 13 percent of the American
population, but in 2004 they accounted for only 6.8 percent of
law students, according to the bar association. The pipeline
isn't encouraging. The Law School Admission Council's
preliminary data for students who enrolled last fall showed that
while the total number of applicants for the year fell by 4.6
percent, the drop among black students was almost twice as high
-- 8.2 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of African-American students graduating
from law schools showed similar declines from 1998 to 2004, Mr.
Nussbaumer said in the article. While the overall number of law
degrees inched up 1.4 percent during that time, the degrees
awarded to African-American students dropped 7.6 percent.
The fall in the number of black students applying to,
enrolling in, and graduating from law schools is a "triple
downward spiral" that demonstrates that "American legal
education is moving backwards, not forwards, in providing access
to law school for African-American students," he writes.
Mr. Nussbaumer says accreditors pressure law schools to limit
the number of students they accept with LSAT scores of less than
141 out of a possible 180. That "de facto cutoff score"
effectively closes the door to many black applicants, since
their mean score is around 143 to 144, he argues.
Law schools contend that admitting many students with low
test scores would jeopardize academic quality. Mr. Nussbaumer
says that such a link has not been proved.
"No published study has demonstrated that this unwritten but
regularly enforced LSAT cutoff is a statistically valid and
reliable predictor of academic success," he writes,
"particularly when low-scoring students are offered structured
Robert J. Morse, director of data analysis for U.S. News &
World Report, was unavailable for comment Monday, but he
told The Wall Street Journal that his magazine was not
responsible for the law-school test's being required for