Tuesday, February 28, 2012

LSAT and Cerebral Palsy: Standardized testing and disabilities

Raf_s7973I sat down and rewrote this piece a number of times, because the subject matter feels very personal and delicate to me. My friends and supporters remember my struggles from when I was applying back to lawschool trying to get proper accommodations for my disability all too well. I still remain a great critic of the exam that all programs that train future attorneys use in their admission process- public or private alike- the LSAT. You would think that with a profession as crucial to carrying out  justice as law, essential for shaping future as Florida defines them "officers of the court" the federal government, the state courts, the department of education, anyone from the public administration would be the one to create and give a test like that. The first thing I found strange when I heard of the LSAT is that it's carried out by an external, private organization. The second- that they have been sued a number of times for failing to accommodate individuals by disabilities a number of times in class actions that were later settled. That they were investigated by the department of justice and put on a five year probation. So much money, it is not a free test, with many people taking it over and over to get a better score. So much power over the academic programs, so much power over the law profession.. I have been through it, I have been through law school and I passed the bar exam. Still, I'm not impressed with the LSAT, I don't agree with how it's structured and administered  and how and what it tests on. My biggest concern, as always: disability accommodations. What you need to understand: we're talking about changes to the form of the exam, not the nature of what is tested. The goal is never to make it easier on a person, but a fairer setting so the physical limitations have less of an influence and we can focus on extracting what we should be interested in getting out all along. Knowledge. Disability accommodations are granted on individual basis, whenever reasonable in that particular condition, supported by medical documentation and prior testing history. They are pretty standard on every level of educational experience as is what you need to show to obtain them. Undergrad and graduate students get them, the bar examiners do so as well, as do entry exams for grad schools and professional schools. Because they are not really given based on that institution's free will as optional. They are fairly rooted in ADA. From my personal, however limited educational experience I can say that: law schools never created any problems granting my accommodation requests for all exams, neither do the Bar examiners in both Florida and New York, or body conducting the professional responsibility test which is that other component for admission to law practice. For my disability they found it was reasonable to: provide me with extra time, a typist with a computer (during Florida Bar exam it was the court reporter), wheelchair accessible sitting in a separate room and unlimited bathroom breaks. The only test administrations I know of that resisted providing a lot of those accommodations were the  MCAT used for med school admissions and the LSAT used as a standard by law schools.

Now, I don't know what the current practice with the MCAT is so I don't really want to comment too much about it, but I remember reading essays defending the practice of both saying that a surgeon needs to function in a highly time constrained setting of an operating room and a lawyer has to think on his feet in a highly stressful court room setting. The main flaw of this thought process is of course that not every med student becomes a surgeon and not every law student dreams of a career as a trial attorney. Also, I think it's very naive to think that a test can predict fitness for any particular profession. I understand that we have to figure out a way to let some applicants go through and eliminate the others, but let's not make them into something they are not- a crystal ball. The truth is we don't know how good somebody is until we actually see them perform and some people do get better with time and practice. But most importantly, let's allow professions to regulate themselves. The LSAT doesn't decide who gets to be an attorney- the Bars do. Some law graduates never go on to practice law, many older accomplished people with actual careers I met in recent years decide to pursue the field out of self enrichment. They want to learn something new. Because a law school is first and foremost a school. Many attorneys who are my friends never see the inside of a court room. I for instance do a lot of drafting, some teach, others do taxes, form corporations, file patents, advise, teach or decide to take on an entirely different career. Besides, being accepted into law school doesn't guarantee you will one day will even be able to practice as an attorney and not because you need to pass the bar exam. They don't do the same type of extensive background checks the bar associations do, nor should they- because they are schools, not training centers.

I  did fairly well in my program. I have been named to the Dean's list a few times, I had a couple of book awards (which are given to the top student in a class). I graduated, I passed the bar and I now practice law. I didn't do amazingly well on the LSAT, because I wasn't given the right conditions to perform on it. And I still oppose the idea of that test with great passion. It seems to me it doesn't test on anything practical or useful. People train for it for months like the Olympics, take it, forget and move on. It seems to only exist to push you to your limits, have you work in an extremely time constrained highly stressful setting. It doesn't involve knowing anything about any particular thing: nature, science, history, the world, language and just seems to exist for itself within its own closed universe. The time dedicated to it, that you need to take to submerge myself in that universe I feel is wasted forever, when you could be reading a book, traveling, learning, doing something that enriches you as a person.
The most upsetting part is how LSAT administration treated people with disabilities. I remember reading that it was part of their practice to ask applicants with Cerebral Palsy requesting accommodations to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. CP is a condition of the brain, but it's not a form of mental retardation, it only affects body control. Not only was that wrong it was offensive. Then, if they happened to grant accommodation requests they would flag the scores, meaning they would tell the school a person with a disability was applying to that there was something wrong with their test, that it wasn't good enough, essentially useless. There was a bunch of law suits brought against the LSAT administration, some of them class action that ended  being settled. There was a Department of Justice investigation and a probation.  But then some other offending event would happen. Claudia Adrien in her 2006 "Gainesville Sun"article does a good job  examining then current situation, please look it up for further reading, but it has to make you wonder: if law schools, if bar associations don't  have any problems granting medically supported accommodations why would a test that is only a step before them not only create so many issues, but defend and continue its practice for so long? What is the LSAT and why is the LSAT exactly?


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