A new, self-published book [Barack O'Liberal] by “pragmatic libertarian” Alan R. Lockwood claims that Barack Obama, while brilliant, may have entered Harvard Law School in the bottom 20% of his class, based on mediocre college grades--and high Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores.
Lockwood arrives at his conclusions with the help of demographic data published in 1990 by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT. ...
Ironically, data leading to Obama’s likely LSAT scores have been publicly available “for over two decades from, among other places, the Library of Congress,” Lockwood says.
According to Lockwood, LSAC data reveal that during the 1987-88 academic year, ten African-American students from Columbia University applied to law school. Only two earned LSAT scores above the 63rd percentile, and those each had scores in the 94-98th percentile--i.e. scores between 42 and 45 on the 48-point scale then in use (166 to 171 on today’s 180-point scale). The other students earned scores that would have been extremely unlikely to qualify for admission, even considering factors such as affirmative action.
Other demographic data from LSAC--including the fact that there were only two 27-year-old African-American students five years out of college that year who achieved scores in that range--further suggest that Obama’s LSAT scores were among the two from Columbia in the 94-98th percentile.
Therefore it is likely, Lockwood concludes, that Obama was admitted to Harvard with LSAT scores near the median of his class (Lockwood suggests a score of 43).
However, Lockwood argues, Obama’s grades were less competitive. Biographer David Maraniss notes that Obama claimed to be a B-plus student at Occidental College--roughly a 3.3 GPA. His GPA at Columbia was reportedly 3.7, and so his combined GPA was near 3.5. (Lockwood takes these numbers roughly as given, though he says they could be slightly inflated.)
That could put him at the bottom 20% of his law school class, 80% of whom had both a GPA above 3.5 and LSAT scores above the 95th percentile.
Obama might have been rejected “under an LSAT-GPA only system,” Lockwood argues. Yet he confirms that Obama excelled once at Harvard Law, graduating in the top 14% of his class--and famously becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
This sounds pretty reasonable, although I haven't checked the methodology or sources. But it's a clever way of approaching the question. You look at various demographic crosstabs that Obama's score would appear under and look for scores that show up in each. Of course, there's a big assumption that Obama wasn't one of the 63rd percentile or lower applicants, but assuming he was one of the two very bright black applicants from Columbia who applied to any law school doesn't seem unreasonable.
A commenter notes that the highest score in Obama's possible range (98th percentile) would put him only at the 25th percentile among the current HLS class. (Most elite educational institutions have seen test score inflation over the last generation, however, so Obama's percentile among first year students was probably a little higher back then.) Scoring at the 25th percentile, combined with mediocre college grades, makes your odds of getting in pretty low without some other juice. It's a big pyramid of applicants and Obama was down toward the broad base. As Obama said while at HLS, he likely benefitted from affirmative action.
On the other hand, most non-STEM higher educational institutions aren't terribly difficult once you've got your foot in the door. If you are black, you can take a lot of race and law type classes (Obama's specialty) to free up time for networking and working on the law review.
Obama's election as editor of the Harvard Law Review was a political decision: the favorite had been a brilliant Jewish leftist radical who wanted to promote the ascendant Critical Legal Theory -- Obama rallied the conservative Federalist Society voters to block the far left Crits by implying that he'd be a caretaker editor not a crusader for the rising leftist postmodernist theories, which he was, and that they could pat themselves on the back for voting for the first black editor. But you have to be pretty smart just to be a plausible caretaker editor.
As I've theorized in the past, very good LSAT scores fits in with the report that Obama only applied to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford law schools, with no safety schools. With his high LSAT score and his affirmative action brownie points (and, as a commenter notes, his Harvard legacy brownie points), he knew he was a lock to get in to one of those schools.
This also may help explain Obama's failure to develop as a legal scholar despite being given every imaginable opportunity over a dozen years or so (including being given a huge advance to write an analytical book about law and race, which he utterly failed to do, eventually producing an autobiography instead. Obama is about as smart as the average elite law school student, but not as smart as the average elite law school professor.
As a lecturer at the U. of Chicago Law School, Obama was perfectly competent to explain in lucid prose both current sides of issues in his specialty of discrimination law (see his tests and answer sheets), but he's not a creative intellect who can push beyond the current talking points. And, presumably, he's smart enough to know that, which is why he didn't embarrass himself by delivering the book for which he'd been paid six figures. Of course, he was still offered tenure by the posh U. of Chicago Law School despite publishing nothing on the law, an offer that would have been astonishing to a white lecturer, as two legal scholars told the NYT in 2008.
I've also theorized that the day Obama received his LSAT scores in the mail may be when his personality changed from the introverted nobody depicted in David Maraniss' biography to the grandiose Future President of the United States who reminded classmate Jackie Foxx of the Runaways when they were at Harvard Law School together of her former bandmate Joan Jett's tricks. (I've never taken the LSAT but I presume it focuses more than the SAT on Obama's strong suits such as verbal logic and vocabulary, but not on math, which doesn't appear to be an Obama strength.) For most of his life, Obama had receded into the background (an acquaintance who had known both Obama and George Stephanopolous at Columbia said Obama made almost no impression relative to the future Clinton aide and broadcaster). But, suddenly at Harvard Law, validated by his LSAT scores and surrounded by 22-year-old law nerds, the 27-year-old Obama was a rock star.
Of course, the irony is terrific. Cognitive testing was recommended by Cyril Burt a century or so ago as a way to find diamonds in the rough among the lower classes, a service to Britain for which he was knighted by a Labour Government. But we have all been told over and over that standardized tests are biased against blacks. Yet in the case of the President of the United States, testing worked just like Sir Cyril said it would: a black loner gets quantitative proof that he really is as smart as he thinks he is and blossoms.
Why wouldn't Mr. Obama release his strong test scores? First, there's the family problem. There is evidence that Mrs. Obama remains sore about her not scoring well on standardized tests (for example, she failed to pass the relatively easy Illinois bar exam at her first opportunity while her husband did pass), which she likes to imply is due to bias. Her husband's fine score on the LSAT suggests that the problem lies not in the tests, but in Mrs. Obama.
Second, has any journalist ever flat out asked Obama what his test scores are? How do we know he wouldn't tell him? I don't mean, has any journalist sent a request to his press secretary which got denied, I mean, has any journalist ever asked Obama face to face about his tests scores? He seems like the kind of guy who would remember all his standardized test scores in detail. In 2011, Maraniss got some time with him in the Oval Office and asked him about his grades at Occidental and Columbia, and Obama gave detailed, plausible-sounding responses. I would hardly be astonished if Obama turned out to be just as forthcoming about test scores if anybody ever asked him.