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Do standardized tests predict your future success?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | November 22, 2011

A new season of standardized testing is underway, with thousands of students taking SAT’s, GRE’s, GMAT’s, and LSAT’s in the hopes of landing a spot at a prestigious school.

Two things to consider. First, gender and racial gaps continue to plague these tests. Second, many schools strongly emphasize these scores in their admissions processes, particularly when the applicant pools are large and staff reviewers are few. This means that if you’re a woman or a minority student, you’re immediately at a disadvantage in gaining access to these schools.

Given that institutions of higher education are essentially the gateways to professional training and jobs, the impact of these testing gaps reverberates far within society. Employers often call for greater diversity in their law offices, their hospitals, their universities, and their startups (see, for example, this recent article in CNN). However, to really address racial and gender inequality in the workplace, employers need to look at the factors that lead to homogenous applicant pools in the first place, and a good place to start is standardized testing.

This is precisely what two of my colleagues at Berkeley have done in a recent article published in Law & Social Inquiry (Shultz and Zedeck, 2011). The LSAT, they note, does a good job of predicting grades at the end of the first year of law school. The further out one goes into the profession, however, the more poorly the LSAT does in predicting what really counts: Effectiveness as a lawyer. Stated another way, one of the main criteria that is used to admit—and reject!—people into law school is not a particularly good criterion for deciding whether you’d actually want to have a given lawyer representing you in a court of law.

Shultz and Zedeck conducted extensive interviews among law school alumni, clients, students, faculty, and judges to arrive at a set of 26 qualities of effective lawyers. Among these qualities are things you’d expect such as “analysis and reasoning,” but also things that might not seem as immediately obvious such as “able to see the world through the eyes of others” and “developing relationships within the legal profession.” And, as it turns out, the LSAT predicts very few of these qualities, suggesting that the gateways to the profession are holding some people back that they should be welcoming with open arms.

OK, but who?

This is the question Shultz and Zedeck addressed in the second phase of their study. They developed an alternative battery of measures that correlated with a majority of these effectiveness factors. The battery includes questions about what one should do in critical ethical situations that lawyers can face (e.g., “what would you do if you caught a colleague photocopying confidential information from the company files?”), biographical and experiential factors (e.g., how much a person finds new, creative ways of doing things that others don’t think of), and even dispositional factors such as optimism! What’s better, the battery items showed very few differences as a function of race or gender, which matches the observation that lawyer effectiveness, in fact, does not differ as a function of these group differences.

Shultz and Zedeck’s work is potentially revolutionary in that it provides a well researched, viable alternative to law school admission criteria in a field that often calls for change but has lacked concrete solutions. Already a few law programs are using Shultz and Zedeck’s findings for reform. Next up, I hope: Engineering schools, medical schools, graduate schools, maybe even college.

Now if someone put on a bake sale to support that effort, I’d happily break my diet and buy a whole batch!

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.


Comments to “Do standardized tests predict your future success?

  1. Very interesting piece. In relation to the GMAT, many people will point to the correlation between salary post school and the what they scored on the exam. However, this leaves out the notion of selection bias, where the top schools go for the top scores and place people in the top jobs… It is a very interesting debate.

  2. I believe that the question to ask is not about race or gender, but what is true intelligence. Howard Gardner has his “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” which I believe is spot on. I believe that success cannot be merely measured through the logical-mathematical intelligence that is tested for on standardized tests. When determining one’s future success and potential, we must look at an overall view of what skills, abilities, and intelligences one has and how he combines them in society. It is unfair to say that one student will be more successful than another. After all, there is something to be said about the intelligence that athletes, musicians, dancers, and businessmen posses that is not measured on a standardized test. Yet, they all still manage to gain success in today’s society.

    • I totally agree with you Intelligence is still an open area intelligence still needs to be defined. Theory’s such as Gardners with “Multiple Intelligences has come a great to help define intelligence and has give in everyone a level playing field, unlike the bell curve that ridiculed ethic minorties and women.

      Carol Dweck has helped the the area of intelligence by suggesting its nuture influenes intelligence and not just ‘you’ born clever and ‘your’ born dumb.

      Goleman’s theories of intelligence should also be taken into consideration both social and emotion intelligence is vital to everyday working life defiantly in the case of a lawyer as he there is a great deal of interacting with his client.

  3. All things being equal, it seems ludicrous to admit an applicant with a lower test score than one with a higher score. Students with higher standardized test scores generally do better than those who do not – the SAT has been shown to do that. What would be interesting to look at is whether there are “tiers” – in other words, does the advantage of a higher score extend indefinitely, or are there discrete cutoffs? On the LSAT, for example, it might be shown that a score of 165 or greater ensures a pretty similar rate of success, and/or that scores below 155 are associated with pretty poor subsequent performance.

  4. This seems a bit off target as all admissions tests only claim to predict first year grades and you are saying that they do that well.

    I would think a better question would by “Should standardized test be used given that there is limited validity beyond the first year” or maybe some exploration of the connection between first year success and completion, or first year success and profession success.

    The title of your article and line of inquire seems akin to asking “Does height predict NBA success?”

  5. Too bad none of the tests, none of our universities and institutions have been able to identify and create leaders who can defeat the forces of greed and immorality that have produced the worst levels of international poverty and environmental destruction in history.

    We came close with FDR and Einstein who were two of the greatest political and intellectual leaders in the 20th century, but we haven’t produced anyone to follow in their footsteps who can perfect and perpetuate their successes in order to guarantee the long term future survival of the human race.

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