RALPH NADER once asked a number of prominent Washington lawyers to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which is required of applicants to US law schools. They all declined. It wasn't a matter of a lot of forgotten, picky details. The LSAT is supposed to measure aptitude for the law, not legal knowledge.
Yet these top lawyers ``said they would be embarrassed because their young associates probably would score better,'' recalls John Richard, who works closely with Mr. Nader.
The incident is suggestive of the broader controversy over the use of standardized tests. On the one hand, the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which produces the test, generally gets high marks from critics of standardized testing for its efforts at fairness.
Yet, they say, these efforts cannot overcome the inherent shortcomings of standardized tests. ``Much too much weight is placed on the test,'' says John Weiss of FairTest in Cambridge, Mass., which monitors the testing industry. ``Law schools rely on the test incredibly.''
Originally part of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the industry giant that produces the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the council broke from the parent organization in the late 1970s. In part, their disagreements concerned a transcript assembly service that ETS was not thrilled about performing. But deeper issues were involved.
One was New York State's ``Truth in Testing'' legislation, which - among other things - has enabled test-takers to check afterward for grading errors, faulty questions, and the like. ETS waged an intensive lobbying campaign against the bill, but the law schools thought consumer protection was a good idea.
After Truth in Testing was enacted, ETS resisted the law with cumbersome administrative procedures, critics claim. The law school council took the opposite approach. ``They saved Truth In Testing,'' says Mr. Weiss. ``It took gumption for them to do this.''
``The credibility of the program depends on the widest exposure to criticism one can get,'' explains LSAC president Thomas O. White.
The second disagreement was more basic. The LSAC tends to look at testing in very practical terms, as a way simply to help select candidates for law study. For this reason, it has not hesitated to change the test to reflect changing social needs. It scaled down the math section, for example, when studies showed that women did less well than men. ETS, by contrast, has been reluctant to make such changes in the SAT.
Bob Cameron, director of research at the College Board, points out that it is harder to make such changes on the SAT because the test is used for a diverse group of students headed for a wide array of institutions and majors. ``You can define the law curriculum much more concretely,'' he says. Mr. White agrees but says a culture of ``scientific'' measurement at ETS is also involved. ``It is a major concern at ETS to keep the statistical base consistent over time,'' he says. LSAC, he adds, is ``not the Census Bureau.''
Many say the LSAT still shares basic shortcomings of standardized tests generally. For one thing, there's the familiar problem of minorities. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and other minority students tend to score lower than their white counterparts, just as they do on the SAT.
If this meant they were less qualified, the test would simply be the messenger bearing the bad news. But Denise Carty-Bennia, a law professor at Northeastern University Law School in Boston and a member of the admissions committee for 10 years, disputes such a conclusion. She cites minority students who did very well in both law school and later practice, even though their LSAT scores were in the 18-to-20 range, out of a maximum of 48. (Northeastern's normal cutoff is roughly 25, she says.) One applicant, who was turned down twice before being admitted, finished in the top 10 percent of his class.
Ralph Smith, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and others argue that in practice, the LSAT says less about an applicant's ability than about the need of law schools to winnow mountains of applications. It's somewhat arbitrary, but ``better than throwing them down the stairs'' and selecting the ones at the bottom, he says. Another reason law schools lean on the test is ``bragging rights,'' Mr. Smith adds. Lesser schools in particular try to raise their average LSAT scores in order to project an aura of quality.
Smith contends that law schools would have less need for such winnowing if they limited the number of applications a student could submit in a given year. (Some apply to 10 or more schools.) Furthermore, he says, the schools could treat the LSAT the way law firms treat the bar exam, on a pass-fail basis. Then they could base admissions decisions on grades and individual qualities.
While some in the testing business bristle at such suggestions, White appears unfazed. He readily concedes the limitations of the LSAT. ``There is no pretense that the exam predicts success in the practice,'' he says. And White defends dual-track admissions (lowering the LSAT cutoff score for minority students) by arguing, in effect, that high test scores are a little like a speedometer that goes to 180 - impressive in theory, but generally of little use in practice. ``There is no evidence of decline in quality whatsoever'' as a result of special accommodations for minority students, he says.
Why isn't he defensive? ``Lawyers are more comfortable [than academics] in a conflict situation,'' White says. ``If you can ferret out the reason [for criticism], more often than not you can do something about it.''