Digital-LSAT

The Law School Admission Test’s 69-year stint as a pencil-and-paper exam could be coming to a close.

The Law School Admission Council Inc., which administers the LSAT, on May 20, will conduct the first nationwide digital exam with 1,000 prospective law students taking the test on tablet computers. The May exam is just a pilot to test the logistics of deploying the tablets, and the scores won’t be official or be provided to schools for admissions purposes. But the large-scale test signals that the LSAC is closely examining a digital future.

“The LSAT is the last remaining paper-and-pencil test out there, at least in the graduate school admissions space,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs for Kaplan Test Prep. “They’re late to the game.”

The [Graduate Record Examination] GRE and GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test] are both computer-based, and the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] was the latest graduate test to go digital—in 2007.

The LSAC has been examining a computerized LSAT for more than 20 years, said Troy Lowry, director of candidate services, product development and deputy chief information officer at the LSAC. It has spent “tens of millions of dollars” researching digital options, but has moved cautiously to preserve the integrity and security of the exam.

There is no timeline for an official digital LSAT, and further testing would be necessary to ensure that the experience and results of the tablet-administered test are comparable to the paper exam, Lowry said.

The LSAC’s move toward digital has not been a result of any competition coming from the use of the GRE in law school admissions, Lowry said.

The project was in the works long before the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law announced in 2016 that it would accept GRE scores—a move Harvard Law School followed last month. Legal education experts have speculated that Harvard’s move will open the floodgates of law schools allowing applicants to take either the LSAT or the GRE. “It’s not in any way a reaction to the GRE,” Lowry said.

Even so, the LSAC is facing unprecedented pressure with law schools’ new embrace of the GRE, Thomas said. It makes sense that the organization is looking to update the test right now. “I do applaud the LSAC for looking at ways they can evolve their operating model and make the test more consumer-friendly, if you will,” he said.

Steve Schwartz, an LSAT tutor who also blogs about the test, speculated that the LSAC may have accelerated its plans for testing the digital exam in light of the GRE’s potential spread in law school admissions.

“The GRE is already computerized and offered virtually every weekday,” he said. “Because of this, it’s a far more consumer-friendly test. LSAC has had a monopoly in the law school admissions market, so it has not had the same incentive to be more friendly and flexible for students.”

The current concept—using tablet computers provided to test takers by the LSAC at traditional testing centers—emerged in 2012, with a prototype coming the following year. The tablet model has been tested in small-scale exams taken by people specifically recruited by the LSAC. Next month’s pilot is different both in its scale—it’s being offered at 20 different locations across the country—and the fact that participation was open to the public.

The LSAC offered takers a $100 gift card and a diagnostic report on where they did well and poorly on the exam. Most participants are using the digital pilot as a practice for official LSAT exams later in the year, Lowry said, and the available slots filled quickly.

Each testing center will be equipped with a hub computer, or “mother ship” as the LSAC’s technology team has dubbed them, which will communicate with the Samsung tablets provided to each test taker. The test questions will only be available on the hubs and tablets during the actual test and are heavily encrypted. Stealing a tablet or hub computer would be useless to anyone hoping to get their hands on the questions early, Lowry said.

Purchasing the tablets and developing the testing system required a significant upfront investment by the LSAC, he added.

“Because we reuse test items, it’s really important that we have rock-solid security,” Lowry said. “We just didn’t think that the, ‘bring your own computer’ model would be secure enough.”

Lowry described the current paper exam system as “quite secure,” but said the tablet format is even more so. For example, the answer sheets of those who took the LSAT in Santa Barbara in December 2015 went missing in the mail before they could be scored. The digital system would not rely on the mail system.

Thomas said he’s not surprised that the LSAC has been slow to move into the digital age.

“The LSAC has publicly stated that they very much want to preserve the law school replication element,” he said. “Law school is still very much an analog endeavor, if you will. Students engage with texts in books. They underline. They highlight. There is a physical thing that happens between a student and the casebook. You lose some of that when you go wholly digital.”

College students like the idea of a digital LSAT, Lowry said. Just 3 percent of those polled by the LSAC said they prefer a pencil-and-paper exam. The test administrators on the whole have proven less comfortable with a digital switch—not all of them as familiar with technology as the people taking the exam, Lowry said.

Whether or not going digital improves the overall experience for test takers remains to be seen, Thomas said. The potential for results to come much sooner than the current three or four weeks would be a real boon to takers, and would reduce that anxious waiting period.

“At the very least, if this allows the LSAC to shorten the timeframe between when a student takes a test and when they receive their score, that would be a very student-friendly outcome,” he said.

But it appears that the LSAC, at least for now, is sticking to the model where takers must go in to designated test centers on specific days—four times a year—which makes the LSAT less convenient overall than the GRE, which is available year round.

But that could change, Schwartz noted. “I believe that a digital LSAT would be a positive development for students since it will likely allow them to take the LSAT at virtually any point over the course of the year,” he said.

Contact Karen Sloan at klsoan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ