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Why numbers sometimes lie

Someday, I promise to write about something that is not inextricably entwined with my own Asian background, but today will not be that day.

At the end of 2010, the results of international standardized tests through the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. Chinese students came out on top, and 2010 was the first year that they participated in the global testing program. But what does this seemingly impressive feat actually mean about the Chinese education system?

An article by NPR notes that Shanghai’s success may only have provoked deeper realizations that their educational system — which stresses memorization and largely ignores critical thinking — is in need of reform. Going back to Professor Chua’s incendiary book regarding Eastern versus Western parenting styles, I’d like to share a relevant excerpt that touches on these very concerns:

[I]f done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something — whether it’s math, piano, pitching, or ballet — he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

The “practice, practice, practice” is exactly what is required for high school students in China to succeed on the final high school exam that allows them admission into college. This exam, the gaokao, simply requires the memorization of subject matter. Parents, principals, and teachers can’t afford to really experiment with a kind of learning that encourages independent thinking, and perhaps, learning from mistakes. A principal for a Shanghai school states, “Why don’t Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We’re not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves.”

A virtuous circle indeed.

While the Chinese students and teachers praise the “west” for the implementation of problem-solving and creative thinking in its schools, this rote repetition is not only emphasized in Asian education systems. The U.S. still bases a large part of college admissions on ACT and SAT scores. Law schools still make admission decisions through LSAT scores. Aside from getting the highest score possible on a standardized test, where do the skills required to succeed on these exams play into our everyday success in college, graduate programs, or our future careers?

Almost every applicant to law school knows — a great G.P.A. is going to get you nowhere unless you have an equally great score on the LSAT. Does the LSAT prepare you for what you need to do in law school? Heck no.

Almost every law graduate who took the bar exam knows — an A for effort in the grueling two-day exam is not going to get you licensed to practice law. But is passing the bar exam a worthy indicator of how successful you will be working in the actual profession? I really doubt it. So why do we still adhere to this seemingly arbitrary scale of numbers?

Last month, an ABA panel proposed changes to the ABA’s law school accreditation standards, which includes dropping the requirement for law school applicants to take the LSAT.

“A substantial portion of the committee believes that provision should be repealed,” said committee Chairman Donald Polden, who is the dean at Santa Clara University School of Law. The committee noted that about 10 law schools already have waivers from the ABA allowing them to admit some students who haven’t taken the LSAT.

The committee focused on the proper role of the ABA in the regulation of law school admissions, as well as the more important question: Is taking a standardized test the only way to determine if someone should be able to go to law school?

In a recent article, Karen Sloan, a writer for Law.com, asked if the LSAT was “the best way to gauge who will succeed in law school, or is it a barrier to diversity in the legal profession and a far too influential component of the rankings game?” After all, the strongest argument in favor of continuing the 40-year reign of LSAT administration is that it acts as the best predictor of success during the first year of law school.

(Translation: Judging you based on a number is a heck of a lot easier than actually trying to find out more about you in a well-rounded manner.)

Well, the LSAC claims that LSAT scores predict first-year law school performance more successfully than solely considering one’s undergraduate GPA, but then admits that considering both your LSAT score and GPA is more accurate. The LSAC encourages all law schools to review every aspect of an applicant, but everyone knows that the top-tier schools place significant (if not all) weight on your LSAT score.

In fact, a 2009 study by two sociologists from the University of Iowa and Northwestern University concluded that the rankings play a significant part in admissions decisions and have prompted some schools to put more money toward merit-based scholarships to attract students with high LSAT scores — often at the expense of need-based scholarships. This seems to create a large disparity between law schools in the top tier, and those in the remaining lower ranks.

Gail Ellis, dean of admissions at Suffolk University Law School, describes the obsession with LSAT scores and rankings as “demoralizing for schools that take a broader view of applicants and admit students who will make good lawyers but don’t necessarily score highly on the test. There is so much pressure. Everybody wants to be in the top tier. The top 25 schools don’t care, but it’s the rest of us who are feeling it. It’s really frustrating to be in the last tier because you give students a chance and look at assessments beyond the LSAT.”

Having graduated from a lower-ranked law school, I wholeheartedly agree with Dean Ellis’ assessment. While eliminating LSAT scores may make the admissions process more time-consuming, mechanisms used in lieu of numbers – such as an admissions essay (which tests writing ability and analytical reasoning) and in-person interviews – prove to be useful tools in evaluating applicants. In my opinion, an applicant’s ability to write effectively and thoughtfully, and how they reflect their personality in a face-to-face interview, are much more important factors to consider than an LSAT score (or even one’s GPA).

John Nussbaumer, an associate dean at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, is a frequent LSAT critic, and has been studying the effects of the LSAT on minorities since 2005. For a forthcoming law review article, he and fellow Cooley professor and ABA Standards Review Committee member Christopher Johnson Jr. analyzed 10 years of law school application data.

The results reflected that blacks had a “shutout” rate of 60 percent – the majority of applicants received no admission offer. Hispanics had a shutout rate of 45 percent; whites had a shutout rate of 31 percent. These percentages closely correlated with the average LSAT score for each group (whites having the highest average LSAT at 153 and blacks the second lowest, 142).

So, what does this mean?  Top-ranked law schools like the University of Michigan and University of Illinois have started to admit small groups of students who have not taken the LSAT. But, given that these alternative admissions procedures have only begun in the last few years, I guess it is too early to tell whether my opinion will hold true.

However, I have confidence that evidence released in the next five to 10 years will vindicate the mantra I have held all along — screw the numbers!