The October 2010 LSAT Curve Analyzed

October LSAT scores arrived in a flurry of tweets on Friday, October 29th.  ”Scores are out!” multiple twitterings  proclaimed and the LSAT nabbed a prestigious “trending top” spot for a couple of hours. Students ran to their inboxes to check their scores and grieve or gloat as the occasion demanded.

So the big question now that scores have been released is…how was the curve?  In a word, pleasant.  Test-takers could miss as many as 12 questions to earn a 170, as many as 19 for a 165, and as many as 27 for a 160.  But what evidence do we have to describe the curve in such glowing terms, and what does it mean for students taking the LSAT in December or February?

We put our talented team of Excel experts on the project of  graphing the LSAT score distributions from the last five years.  Here’s what we found:

Our timeline begins with the December 2004 LSAT.  Like the October 2010 LSAT, you could miss  twelve questions and score a 170.  Note that after December 2004, however, the curve became progressively less forgiving, culminating in the infamous December 2005 LSAT where you could only miss eight (8!) questions for a 170.  The games section was the culprit for this horrifying curve.  The first game was an exceedingly straightforward ordering game, followed by two easy games.  The fourth game was difficult, but because most people could navigate the first three games with relative ease, fewer questions were missed on the test overall.  With so many students not missing questions, the curve became incredibly difficult.

After the December 2005 LSAT, the number of questions you could miss for  170 crept upward again until June 2007 (the first test to feature comparative reading) where test takers had the fun of experiencing another “only eight misses allowed for a 170” situation.  Things got better in December 2009 with the early holiday gift of missing fourteen for a 170. Happy Chanukah. On the same test you could miss twenty eight for a 160. Missing twenty eight questions out of 100 on an algebra quiz would earn you a C-.  On the December 2009 LSAT, it gave you a score competitive at many of the top law schools in the country.

Pause here for something you might be wondering about at this point.  Namely, does the fact that you can miss more question on particular LSATs for a 170 (what we’re terming an “easy” curve) mean that the test itself was easy?  Not necessarily.  Take the case of the December 2005 LSAT.  This test had a difficult curve (you could only miss eight questions for a 170), but it was due to an easy games section.  But does this mean that an “easy” curve must originate from a difficult LSAT?

It could.  If the questions are difficult and everyone is missing them, you’ll be able to miss more and still score well.  In this scenario, an “easy” curve translates to a difficult test.  But there’s another possible explanation. If more people take the test who haven’t prepared well, they could miss enough questions to translate to an easier curve.  Think of an algebra quiz that is graded on a curve.  Let’s posit that Joe studied for the quiz industriously and no one else taking it did.  Let’s further posit that Joe missed 10 out of 20 questions, a failing grade normally.  However, everyone else in the room missed more because they didn’t study as much.  Not only does Joe have the highest score in the room, he also has the highest percentile ranking.

What happened on the October 2010 LSAT?

After hearing students’ initial responses from the October 2010 LSAT, we think the second scenario is the most plausible explanation for the generous October 2010 curve.  The test didn’t seem to contain anything particularly difficult.  By the December 2005 model, this could have translated into a difficult curve (missing fewer for a high score).  But it didn’t – you could miss twelve for a 170.  This, coupled with the fact that more people have been taking the LSAT, (almost certainly due to the recession) points us toward the test taking population as the culprit for the easier curve.

Here’s why.  Let’s think through the influx of people taking the LSAT right now.  They’re on the path to law school, probably not because it’s their life ambition, but because they want to wait out the recession in law school and it’s a graduate program that accepts any undergraduate major.  Such people may not understand how much the LSAT is weighed in law school applications, or if they do, may not particularly want to devote the months of study it takes to prepare for this difficult test.  They are, in other words,  a group of test takers who are not as likely not to perform well on the LSAT.  Thus the generous curve.

But even though the curve was easy, it’s important to note that the October 2010 LSAT curve represents, at most, a slight fluctuation when viewed historically.  For the last five years, test takers could miss approximately ten questions and score a 170 on the LSAT. Some LSATs were more difficult and you could only miss eight or nine, but sometimes test takers could miss twelve or more for a 170. Scoring a 160 has remained relatively consistent at missing approximately 25, and so on.

Which makes sense.  The purpose of the LSAT is to provide admissions officers with something that measures you with relative consistency against other applicants.  This can’t be the GPA because of so many variables, like choice of undergraduate major and grade inflation, that come into play.  Law Services puts a great deal of effort into standardizing the LSAT, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve been successful at it.

What does this mean for you?

Whether you’re evaluating the results of the October 2010 LSAT, or wondering if you’ll get an easy curve for  the upcoming December or February LSATs, the lesson here is not to want a test with an easier curve. The lesson is that, on an exam where your score depends on how well you do in relation to everyone else, you should prepare better than everyone else.  In other words, don’t pray to be saved by an easy curve—pick up those LSAT prep books and study.

This guest post is provided by Jodi Triplett of Blueprint LSAT Prep.  Blueprint has locations across California and in New York, Boston, Austin, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Phoenix, as well as an online LSAT course.

For more information about the LSAT, you can also listen to our podcasts:

• The LSAT: Everything You Need to Know About the Test

• Comparing LSAT Test Prep Companies: Which One is Right for You?

 Conquering the LSAT:  Tips for Tackling the Test