There Was No LSAT Surge

Readers of the Wall Street Journal Law Blog were likely confused by a few statements in a recent post “Whither the LSAT Takers?

Author Joe Palazzolo writes, “Recently released LSAT stats show a steep slide in the number of tests administered. The roughly 130,000 tests in February were the fewest in more than 10 years.” That 130,000 figure is the total LSAT administrations for the 2011-12 testing year, not for February. It’s the lowest since the 2000-01 testing period.

But this post isn’t about Palazzolo’s innocent typo—that was just to set up the topic—it’s about the persistent belief that wave after wave of college students took the LSAT once Lehman Bros. collapsed.

Palazzolo quotes the LSAT Blog:

This is a major turn of events. The tide is turning, folks.

You see, for most of the past decade, the number of LSAT test administrations was somewhere in the neighborhood of 142,000 per year. Then, in sudden reaction to the recession (or to Netflix’s acquisition of old Law & Order episodes), we saw a major spike in LSAT administrations — the highest number of LSATs ever administered in a single admission cycle (just over 170,000). This represented a 13.3% increase in LSATs administered over the previous year. It looked like the lawyer glut was going to become unimaginably worse, but something changed.

The eager stampede to law school stopped slowly, then all at once.

…And then he adds, “[LSAT Blog] notes the numbers may also be affected by changes in LSAC policy on when test takers can withdraw their registration.”

Nope. In the mid-2000s law schools stopped averaging repeat-takers’ scores and instead accepted their highest scores. This greatly increased people’s incentive to retake the test. Instead, the thing to look at is the number of first-time LSAT takers, which is buried in LSAT statistical analyses and shamefully isn’t up to date. Using the percent of first-time test takers from the last available testing year (60 percent, 2009-10), I’ve projected the number of first-time takers for more recent years.

This past year was probably just above the nadir of mid-1990s. However, given that the percentage of first-time takers has been declining for the last decade, it could very well be lower.

More importantly, peak first-time LSAT takers in 2009-10 was 102,948, only a few hundred more than the previous peak in 2002-03 (102,313). Specifically, the decline can be traced to October 2010, before David Segal’s New York Times coverage began, and after law the number of law school applications peaked well below their 2004 level.

Point is, contrary to the WSJ Law Blog and the LSAT Blog, the “major spike in LSAT administrations” was due to repeat takers and not throngs of unemployed college grads flocking to test centers to escape the Lesser Depression. Rather, we should be surprised that more people didn’t take the test in circumstances than we’d normally expect them to.

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