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Tuesday, July 25, 2017
California Supreme Court to Lower “Cut” Score on State Bar Exam
Today was a big day for thousands of California law students as they sat through day one of the state's biannual bar examination. Tomorrow they sit through six hours more. But this is where this year's exam becomes momentous: there is no longer a third day. California was one of just a handful of three-day bar exams in the country, and is widely regarded as the most difficult in the nation. The pass-rate for first-time takers in 2016 was just 62%.
If lobbing a day off the grueling test wasn't good news enough for law students, there is new cause for celebration. The California Supreme Court has announced its intent to raise the minimum score required for passing. The move comes following years of debate amongst legal professionals and scholars, who claim that the exam's rigor had a chilling effect upon the stream of qualified candidates entering the legal profession.
Last year, just 51% of graduates of Hastings School of Law passed the exam. Earlier this year, Whittier Law School announced that it would close, due in part to poor performance on the exam. While some purists will argue that the exam is a highly functional filter, the reality is that many who don't pass the examination in CA, would easily qualify in other states. In other words, as a screen, the exam is not porous enough.
Of particular note is the retroactivity of the court's order. Students who may not pass the July 2017 exam, may simply need to wait until January 2018, when the court raises the minimum score, at which point, they can be admitted to the bar. Unfortunately, July exam takers will get their regular results in November 2017, so unsuccessful candidates will be subject to several months of nail-biting.
Cynics argue that the move is designed to rescue law schools from hemorrhaging enrollment numbers. Whether CA's legal job market will be able to sustain an influx of additional practitioners is something that remains to be seen.
Monday, July 24, 2017
Keeping Your Eye on the Ball in College Applications
If you missed the baseball metaphor, what I'm suggesting here is that college hopefuls keep their eyes on the prize, tuning out the activity happening elsewhere on the field. In college admissions, there is a single question that plagues every applicant: what are colleges looking for in a student? In endless blogs, books, advice columns and social media forums, students circle the drain in a frenzy, trying to figure out how to make their dream college want them.
I'm suggesting that most of this is a distraction. One of the most hotly debated issues in college admissions is quotas. It is a mysterious gray area, clouded by legal challenges, racial discrimination, unspoken legacy admissions, and financial bottom lines. Challenges to affirmative action have been raised across the country, and even at the federal level and met with a wide swath of different results.
In reality, the cards are stacked against all applicants, to varying degrees. Competition for colleges is fierce. Race, national origin and ability to pay are all very real factors. They are also things that most students can't control. This doesn't mean that conversations about diversity and equity aren't important. It means simply that college hopefuls should narrow their focus: put your best foot forward, and let go of all of the what-ifs. The reality is far more frustrating: thousands of highly qualified students will get turned away.
If you're a spectacular student, don’t waste your admission essay discussing your grades. If you're a less than spectacular student, don't use the essay to air your regrets. Use it to let the college know who you are, whatever that means to you. Be creative, be forceful, be optimistic. Don't get stuck in the weeds. And while you can't map your way in everywhere, you can be assured that there is a place for you. Your job is to find it.
Monday, July 10, 2017
Do Aptitude Tests Accurately Measure Merit, or Privilege?
It may come as a surprise to you that the Scholastic Aptitude Test was first administered all the way back in 1926. Though it didn't transform into its modern structure until the early 1950s, it was widely utilized as a rudimentary tool of meritocracy measurement. The test administrators gained their biggest client in 1960, when the University of California first made it a requirement to entry. Eventually, virtually all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. made the SAT mandatory.
There is no small amount of irony in the test's insidiously racist origins. Its creator, Carl C. Brigham, was an accomplished scholar and unabashed white supremacist, who believed that the "Nordic" descendants in America were fundamentally superior. He declared that aptitude testing scientifically proved that "American Negroes, the Italians and the Jews were genetically ineducable". Utilizing aptitude tests, he reasoned, would ensure that the intelligence of the white race would not be diluted by allowing non-whites into the university environment.
Almost a century later, the SAT and related aptitude tests arguably work just as Brigham intended. Good performance on the SAT does correlate with success in college. But it also tracks visibly along socioeconomic and racial lines. Wealthy students are far more likely to attend better high schools, have college educated parents, academic support at home, and-most significantly-the means for SAT preparation workshops and materials. Those students are overwhelmingly white.
The biases inherent in test scores are recognizable enough to modern universities, that close to a thousand colleges in the U.S. are now "test-optional", meaning that the SAT, ACT and related exams are not a requirement for admission. What's problematic is that most of these schools are smaller, with fewer applicants, giving them the time to make a more holistic assessment of a student's potential. Big universities receive so many applications each year that the SAT is a crucial filter for high volume. Because poverty correlates largely with race in the U.S., the test is effectively a barrier to access for students of color, who are already disproportionately under-represented in third-level educational institutions.
Though Brigham later walked back some of his assertions about the science of racism, the damage was already done; he'd lit the firey rage of anti-immigrant sentiment and zeal for eugenics. The country, apparently, has yet to recover.
Monday, July 3, 2017
STEM-Majors Outperform Humanities Students on LSAT
In news that should surprise virtually no one, college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math generally do better on the LSAT than students of history, English, and sociology. They also account for fewer than 6% of law school applicants-a deficit that many experts claim is diluting the quality of the intelligence pool.
As a first year law student, I attended a massive test-prep workshop in Los Angeles where the animated host devoted a large chunk of time to precisely this subject. I'd always thought that English and Philosophy were the feeder-majors for law school. Here we were being told to approach law school and the bar exam with the minds of scientists. And, while terrifying, it made sense.
As its name professes, the LSAT is an aptitude exam. This means that it tests quantitative and analytic skills. It is largely multiple choice, with a single writing section that is not scored. Critical thinking (questioning absolutes!) is the backbone of humanities study. In practice, law leans heavily upon nuance, theatre, deft debate, and calculated spin. Successful litigation depends as much on toppling notions of existing law as it does in advocating for their stringent administration. The LSAT does not test critical thinking skills, at least in their most classic context.
The LSAT is recognized as an effective predictor of law school and bar exam success. Students with strong quantitative and scientific skills tend to perform better on tests of absolutes. While it is crucial to the integrity of the legal profession to front-load admission with watertight filters, the theory that the profession is suffering from a lack of STEM practitioners isn't exactly science.
The real problem isn't that psychology majors are bad at multiple-choice tests. It's that STEM students don't want to go to law school. This should be the critical discussion point, particularly in a post-graduate field that continues to see declining enrollment and job placement. For better or worse, the LSAT remains the standard-bearer in the adjudication of legal talent.
It's ongoing efficacy as a gatekeeper is a story for another day.
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