Law School Assessment in the Context of Accreditation: Critical Questions, What We Know and Don't Know, and What We Should Do Next

Document Type

Law Review Article

Publication Date



educational psychology and metacognition, academic success programs


"The essay proceeds in several parts. Part I provides important background about student learners now in law school or in the pipeline to attend law school in coming years. Since the focus of assessment is on student learning, it is crucial to understand the individuals whose learning is being assessed. Applying assessment practices historically developed for learners with different characteristics can result in mistaken judgments or missed opportunities for understanding and shaping the learning occurring today.

"Part II considers assessment practices increasingly associated with academic support programs introduced into legal education in the past quarter-century. Many faculty members were not exposed to academic support programming during their time in law school, because they sailed through their law school careers with little difficulty and thus did not experience some of the challenges that many in more recent generations of law students know all too well. Some faculty members may indeed regard academic support programming as remedial, assuming that those involved in this instructional area lack scholarly insights or exist in a world apart. Contrary to these assumptions, however, those engaged in academic support instruction are typically deeply knowledgeable about cognitive sciences and learning theory. They are among law schools’ best resources for guiding the implementation of the new ABA requirements on assessment, and faculty colleagues need to understand the scholarly insights emerging in this new field.

"Part III considers assessment processes increasingly being introduced by innovative faculty members who are experimenting with diverse forms of ‘formative assessment’—that is, introducing new types of educational practices into their courses and testing the extent to which such practices improve student learning. ‘Formative assessments’ differ from ‘summative assessments’ typically used to award grades at the end of a course. ‘Formative assessments’ simply provide students with educational tasks and some sort of feedback to help them become more aware of what they do or do not know, and to help build ‘scaffolds’ for subsequent learning. The new ABA standards direct law schools to incorporate more opportunities for ‘formative assessment’ in their instructional programs, while being clear that such techniques need not be employed in every class. Nonetheless, faculty colleagues who wish to experiment with such innovations need to know what types of formative assessment strategies are being developed by colleagues around the country, and may wish to learn how colleagues are themselves assessing whether such innovations actually make a difference in student learning.

"Part IV turns to ‘institutional assessment,’ and the ways that law schools as institutions can approach new ABA requirements that mandate them to identify and assess their students’ learning through certain lenses or with an eye to certain ‘competences’ that are needed by legal professionals and that may increasingly be embedded in evolving bar examination practices or considered by prospective employers when recruiting students or evaluating associates early in their careers. ‘Institutional assessment’ practices typically necessitate collaborative efforts among faculty colleagues and between faculty and professional staff in order to determine the critical dimensions of learning to be assessed, across a number of courses and over the several years that students are enrolled. These critical dimensions are increasingly referred to as ‘programmatic learning outcomes.’ Once programmatic learning outcomes have been identified and adopted, additional challenges arise. How can a school and its faculty and professional staff collectively determine whether the desired outcomes have been achieved by their student bodies as a whole? Part IV accordingly proceeds in two major subparts, first considering learning outcomes and related questions, and then considering potential assessment techniques. Institutional assessment is by no means easy, and most faculty members, deans, and associate deans are unfamiliar with core concepts and methods. This part accordingly endeavors to help law schools and their faculties to get up to speed as they embark on this new journey.

"In concluding, Part V engages in a modest thought experiment, suggesting that legal education’s specialized accreditor, the ABA’s Council on Legal Education, should engage more seriously in the kind of sound assessment practices that it has now mandated for law schools and their faculties. It references good practices used in other professional fields as a means of testing collective judgments about and updating appropriate accreditation practices, and suggests that the ABA would do well to practice what it preaches—or, indeed, demands."