by Madelynn Smith
When I was a senior in high school, I made the decision to pursue a career in law. I decided to major in legal studies at HBU and, after I graduated, continue into law school. In order to get into law school, I needed to complete the application process, and one of the major aspects when applying is the LSAT. Every law school in America requires students to take the LSAT, which is essentially like the SAT or ACT, but structured in a way for the law schools to predict whether or not the applicant can think like an attorney. However, as I prepared to finally take the LSAT myself, the Coronavirus pandemic happened, and the entire exam was revised to fit new standards.
Prior to COVID-19, the exam was designed to test student’s critical thinking, logical analysis, and reading/writing skills. Typically, the exam is divided into 5 sections. This includes a reading comprehension section, a logical analysis section, an analytical reasoning section, and a writing section. The first three of these sections would be offered in a random order, and one of them would be offered a second time as the fourth section. The writing was offered after the first four sections and did not count towards the applicant’s overall score. The Reading Comprehension part is a set of questions that relate to a passage given. The student then answers these questions based on it. This passage does not necessarily have to be about law or government, but is used to provide an example of the student’s understanding of complex passages. The logical reasoning section is much shorter, asking students to analyze an argument and answer questions based on their understanding of the argument. The last part, the analytical reasoning section, is also called logic games and is set up like a series of word puzzles that the students solve. The writing section is based on a prompt and students write an essay arguing their side of the prompt they chose. Typically, students study for the exam using a variety of books, online practice questions and exams, tutors, and attending classes. They can use Khan Academy or questions off of the LSAT website, the LSAC itself. When I planned to take the exam originally, I thought that I would be following one of these methods.
However, once COVID happened, all of that changed. I found out last semester that, instead of taking the exam in a testing center with its normal structure, I would be taking the LSAT-Flex. This exam was the LSAC’s response to the COVID pandemic, and as such, it became an entirely online, at-home, process. The in-person classes I had planned to take in order to study were then canceled and I had to figure out the new system that was being required for the exam. Now typically, taking an online exam wouldn’t have been a difficult thing to adjust to, but the LSAT-FLEX was set up entirely different from the LSAT I had been expecting to take. The five sections were changed to four and the 15-minute breaks were taken away. The bathroom and quick water breaks I had been expecting also were taken away, to ensure that students didn’t get up to consult notes or other students during the exam. Additionally, I needed to download a specific lockdown browser and was given a host of new requirements that I had to follow in order to be allowed to take the exam. I think that it also wasn’t as much the new formatting to the exam that made me anxious, but the last-minute change to the exam, as opposed to what I had been preparing for. During the actual exam, I found that while the three-section revisions made the exam shorter, I had a camera proctor watching me the entire time. Having a proctor of course wasn’t an unusual experience, but having one only focused on me was a little unnerving. The most surprising thing that happened though was when my internet shut down halfway through the test. I had just begun the second section when my computer logged me out of the exam, closed the browser, and cut off my access to the proctor when I disconnected from the Wi-Fi. It was a nerve-wracking 15 minutes that I spent trying to reconnect and get back to the test, all the while worried I was going to need to restart, or even worse, reschedule altogether. Thankfully I was able to get back online and I didn’t need to do either of those, but it was certainly stressful! Overall, I felt that I had done fairly well, but I really wished I had been able to do the regular LSAT exam.
When I received my results a few weeks later, I was disappointed to see that my score reflected my anxiety during the test. Thankfully I had still done well enough to be admitted, but the financial aid I had been hoping to secure through my rank became much less sure. What I found very interesting though, as I began to share my score with my friends, my advisor, and my family, was that although I hadn’t done as well as I wanted, a trend of people scoring surprisingly low on COVID-restructured standardized tests was emerging. As it turns out, many other people across the country had been scoring consistently lower than the average in previous years. It turns out I wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with the new testing formats, since students all over began to see a decline in their online testing scores the longer COVID went on. My parents in Florida even saw a news segment done discussing the strikingly lowering testing scores that people were receiving as standardized tests were adjusting to fit the new online, at-home structure.
Additionally, as I looked further into this trend I found that it wasn’t just happening in the LSAT either. This trend was emerging in high schoolers with the SAT and ACT and in the medical field with the MCAT. All over the country, students were consistently performing worse than in years before now that we had to contend with COVID. And while of course, that doesn’t automatically mean that I did better on the LSAT, it does call into question the way that admission counselors might consider people’s scores. I heard also that people on the boards of schools like Harvard and Yale were lowering admissions standards in terms of people’s SAT or ACT scores for admittance. Furthermore, it made me wonder what testing was going to look like in the next several years. At the end of law school, the students have to pass the Bar Exam in order to obtain their legal license. Will that also be an at-home, camera-proctored experience, or will I be able to take it in the school like before COVID? If at-home standardized testing is consistently leading to worse performance, will testing administrations allow in-class testing again? Or will this lead to some schools dropping the requirement of standardized testing altogether? It’s hard to say what exactly will happen, but certainly, something has to be changed if people are scoring lower than ever before.