Dollars and Sense has a terrific interview with Lani Guinier (via Blackfeminism), questioning how the idea of “merit” has been applied in law school admissions. Here’s a sample, but it’s worth reading the whole thing.
Relying on things like the LSAT allowed law school officials to say they were determining admission based on merit. So several colleagues told me to look at the LSAT scores because they were confident that I might find something to explain the significant differences in performance. But we found that, surprisingly, the LSAT was actually a very poor predictor of performance for both men and women, that this “objective” marker which determined who could even gain access was actually not accomplishing its ostensible mandate.
I then became interested in studying meritocracy because of the attacks poor and working class whites were waging against Affirmative Action. People were arguing that they were rejected from positions because less qualified people of color were taking their spots. I began to question what determines who is qualified. Then, the more research I did, the more I discovered that these so-called markers of merit did not actually correlate with future performance in college but rather correlated more with an applicant’s parents’ and even grandparents’ wealth. Schools were substituting markers of wealth for merit. […]
RP: Can you talk about the Harvard and Michigan studies?
LG: Harvard University did a study based on thirty Harvard graduates over a thirty-year period. They wanted to know which students were most likely to exemplify the things that Harvard values most: doing well financially, having a satisfying career and contributing to society (especially in the form of donating to Harvard). The two variables that most predicted which students would achieve these criteria were low SAT scores and a blue-collar background.
That study was followed by one at the University of Michigan Law School that found that those most likely to do well financially, maintain a satisfying career, and contribute to society, were black and Latino students who were admitted pursuant to Affirmative Action. Conversely, those with the highest LSAT scores were the least likely to mentor younger attorneys, do pro-bono work, sit on community boards, etc.
So, the use of these so called “measures of merit” like standardized tests is backfiring on our institutions of higher learning and blocking the road to a more democratic society.
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She is using “performance” in a way that most people would not. Sure, giving back to the community is great. In the college and university world, grade performance is what’s often considered most relevant.
Longitudinal studies of the thousands of LSAT takers indicate a pretty good correlation (0.66) between first-year performance and LSAT score. Correlations for other performance indicators are weaker but real.
Perhaps grades are not what ought to be considered important for law school students. I wouldn’t know. When I hire lawyers, I’m a lot more interested in their real-world case record and whether they are honest timekeepers than I am in their academics.
As for a “more democratic society” – ulch. Has she seen the Springer show lately? I’ve never quite understood how lowering the bar on already-degraded cultural and intellectual norms is going to make life better for anyone.
I would guess…and this is a personal anecdote sort of guess…that one of the reasons low LSAT scores tend to correlate with success is that the people who get lower scores but still got themselves into law school had a history of busting their ass just to get there. I am the type of person who just gets good scores on tests. I don’t really have to attend or pay attention in class, just sort of skim the material as long as its not an overly difficult class (and there were just about none, except friggin identities in Trig, during high school), and voila, A or B. I guess I’m lucky, I’m not trying to say I’m super-smart or anything…just that I’m good with tests. I almost didn’t graduate high school, though, because I had incompletes in important classes, and my GPA is was on the low end for my class. Because, I’ll admit it, I have no idea how to work hard in a class. I never had to. I never did any homework, never really studied…threw togetherA research papers in an evening and passed-ish.
So now, here I am in college and I’m in trouble. I am having to teach myself good work habits at 22…which is way harder than learning them at 5, 6, 7 all the way through school. I would definately be better off and more prepared for life now had I not had it so easy in school…the people who HATED me in high school because I slept all semester and still got better scores than them on the tests are now graduating from college with honors…and I have freshman standing at a community college (after on-and-off classes for 4 years). ‘Smart’ is not everything, not even most of everything. Hard work will get you a lot farther in most places. (By the way…don’t get the wrong impression: I’m an incredibly hard worker as far as my job goes…for some reason I just can’t get my personal time-management and attention span related stuff together)
Anyway, so, conclusion to long, rambling post based on my own laziness and now attempts to totally retrain my habits: people who get good test scores tend to have more of an opportunity to develop slacky work habits than people who don’t and still want to do well. If you have low LSAT scores and yet have good enough other things to get you into law school, I’d say that’s a pretty good indication that you’re a hard worker, and you’re almost certainly doing better than high-SAT-score lazy-ass me.
You have to have enough intelligence to understand legal concepts and to apply them to specific (new) cases, and some creativity helps as well, but once you’ve cleared the minimum to be able to do the law school work, diligence, ability to read people, ability to negotiate without being an asshole, ability to be an asshole when needed, and a host of other non-testable skills come into play.
I tend to think that SAT type tests measure the ability to take tests. BTW, the Haavahd study, though interesting, is very small at n = 30.
I also am interested in the issue of how government/society allocates scarce resources in an unbiased (“meritocratic”) way, and I look forward to seeing this book. The interview leaves much unresolved.
[T]he LSAT was actually a very poor predictor of performance for both men and women, that this “objective” marker which determined who could even gain access was actually not accomplishing its ostensible mandate.
I will be interested to see how Guinier substantiates this claim.
Recall that the LSAT is designed to help draw distinctions among the people who apply to law school; that’s a big pool. It was not designed to help draw distinctions between the people admitted to law school; that’s a much smaller pool, and such judgments would arguably require a more refined tool.
How could we test whether the LSAT was a good predictor of performance (however defined)? We could administer the LSAT to people and then admit them at random to law schools, and seeing how subsequent performance compared with test score. Alternatively, we could take a representative sample of people who have taken the LSAT, whether or not they went to law school, and compare their scores with their later performance. Either technique would preserve the randomness required for a study.
But I would question the merit of comparing performance and LSAT scores of graduates of any one law school. Real law school admissions departments do not grant admissions randomly. In generally, an admissions department would only admit someone with abnormally low scores if he had other compensating qualities, and would only receive an application from someone with abnormally high scores if she had other detracting qualities that would exclude him from attending a more prestigious school. I can’t see how non-random students can reveal anything about the LSAT generally.
People were arguing that they were rejected from positions because less qualified people of color were taking their spots. I began to question what determines who is qualified. Then, the more research I did, the more I discovered that these so-called markers of merit did not actually correlate with future performance in college but rather correlated more with an applicant’s parents’ and even grandparents’ wealth. Schools were substituting markers of wealth for merit.
I expect admissions offices want to use whatever “markers of merit” best predicts merit (however defined). The best critique of any given marker is to demonstrate a superior marker. Alas, in the interview Guinier does not indicate that she can do so.
Perhaps some markers of merit correlate with family wealth; it’s a fascinating sociological discovery, an inditement of our culture, etc. But should it matter to an admissions department? I mean, all they care about is who is most likely to do well (however defined), right?
[M]any people defend Affirmative Action on grounds that there are multiple measures of merit and that bringing diverse students to the school would benefit the learning environment. The problem with this argument is that it pits diversity as a counterpoint to merit. And, the argument is not strong enough to counter the belief in “merit” as an egalitarian and democratic way to allocate scarce resources. I am arguing that there are fundamental flaws in the over-reliance on these supposedly objective indicators of merit.
Again, that’s fine, but if you’re making an argument on the grounds of merit, what do you use in the absence of objective indicators? It’s hard to beat somethin’ with nothin’.
(I favor a restorative theory of Affirmative Action, so I don’t worry about this merit argument. Which is not to say I wouldn’t love to be able to pull a merit argument out of my pocket, too….)
Harvard University did a study based on thirty Harvard graduates over a thirty-year period. They wanted to know which students were most likely to exemplify the things that Harvard values most: doing well financially, having a satisfying career and contributing to society (especially in the form of donating to Harvard). The two variables that most predicted which students would achieve these criteria were low SAT scores and a blue-collar background.
Here’s where rabbit may have a good point. If the study demonstrates that the best predictors of success are low SAT scores and a blue-collar background, that would truly be remarkable. In contrast, if the study merely shows that the people most likely to succeed are people with such extraordinary merit that they can get into Harvard in spite of low SAT scores and a blue-collar background, that seems unremarkable to the point of cliche.
The fact that the SAT may not predict which Harvard grad will achieve the most does not mean that the SAT does not predict which applicant will do better at Harvard.
[T]hose with the highest LSAT scores were the least likely to mentor younger attorneys, do pro-bono work, sit on community boards, etc.
Here’s where Robert may have a point: What are the measures of merit? Mentoring young attorneys, doing pro bono work, sitting on boards, etc., are things that practicing attorneys do – attorneys with malpractice insurance and regular exposure to young attorneys. In contrast, people who get the best grades at prestigious law schools may not actually practice law, but rather teach, do clerkships, go into management, etc. Arguably these people do meritorious work, even if that work does not fit the norm of the practicing attorney.
Meritocracy is an important topic; I hope Guinier does a good job with it.