History of the LSAT

Early Standardized Testing for University Admission

The practice of administering standardized tests for the purpose of assessing university applicants dates back to the first years of the 20th century. Before this, universities either used their own distinct admission tests or did not give their applicants admission tests at all (in the latter case, acceptance was often based on graduation from a high school certified by the university). The College Entrance Examination Board was founded in 1901 with the goal of creating a uniform entrance examination for use by 12 elite universities. An essay-style exam was introduced the same year, and was known informally as the "College Boards." The work of psychologist Carl Brigham (1890-1943) was instrumental to the further development of university-level standardized testing. Brigham, who had previously worked on intelligence tests administered to U.S. Army recruits during World War I, created a test for the College Board that aimed to assess aptitude rather than knowledge. This test, first offered in 1926, is now one of the world's most widely taken university entrance examinations: the SAT.

Pre-LSAT Admission Tests for Law School

The idea of a standardized assessment of student aptitude became highly influential in other areas of university admission, including legal training. There were at least two such examinations for law degree programs that predate the LSAT: a test developed in the mid-1920s by psychology professor George D. Stoddard (1897-1981) and law professor/university administrator Merton L. Ferson (1876-1964), and an assessment created in 1930 by the Department of Personnel Study at Yale University for use by Yale Law School. Both examinations evaluated verbal skills such as reading comprehension, analogies, and synonyms/antonyms.

The Development of the LSAT

The Stoddard-Ferson and Yale exams soon fell out of favor, primarily because they were seen to have no distinct advantages over standardized tests of general intelligence. In 1945, Frank H. Bowles (1907-1975), admissions director of Columbia Law School, proposed a set of criteria for the creation of a new law school entrance exam. Among these criteria were validity (the test should accurately predict future law school performance), ease of results interpretation (scoring should not be hard to understand), and assessment of specific skills needed for success in legal study (to whatever degree that was possible). Test development along these lines began in 1947, with input from a number of other law schools and the College Board. Along with Bowles, Columbia professor Willis Reese (1913-1990) and College Board president Henry Chauncey (1905-2002) were two other figures important to the new test's creation.

The Early LSAT

After experimental pretesting in 1947, the LSAT was first officially administered to students in February of 1948. The original test took a full day to complete, and it contained 10 sections, all of which were devoted to passive verbal skills. A number of revisions were implemented during the LSAT's early years, including the addition of a Data Interpretation section in 1949 and the introduction of a writing test in 1961. The annual number of LSAT test-takers grew from 6,750 in 1950 to 23,800 in 1961 and 107,500 in 1970. Over roughly the same period, the number of Law School Admission Council member law schools (all of whom used the LSAT) increased from 22 in 1951 to 117 in 1971.

Further Development of the LSAT in the 1970s and 1980s

The modern LSAT began to take shape during the 1970s and 1980s. The current Logical Reasoning and Analytical Reasoning sections first appeared in 1975 and 1982, respectively (aside from a hiatus from 1975-1982, Reading Comprehension has always been a feature of the exam). In 1975, the LSAT was administered 133,300 times, with an LSAC membership of 174 law schools in the United States and Canada. The number of test-takers then declined to 108,000 in 1980 and 91,800 in 1985 before exploding to 152,750 in 1990.

The LSAT Since 1990

The yearly number of LSAT administrations has continued to fluctuate in recent decades. About 104,000 LSATs were taken during the 1998-99 testing year, which then rose to an all-time high of 171,000 in 2009-10, dropped to 106,000 in 2015-16, and increased to 129,000 in 2017-18. These fluctuations are probably attributable to changing fortunes in the legal profession's job market. The LSAT's content has been more or less the same since 1991, but two important changes in the test's administration took place in 2019: the LSAT became a digital assessment, and students were permitted to complete the required Writing sample separately and remotely. Furthermore, the number of available test dates was expanded to a total of nine. The LSAT's long monopoly on admissions testing for law degree programs has apparently reached its end, as shown by the fact that many law schools now accept the GRE from their applicants.

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