Program of Research on Legal Writing: Phase II: Research on a Writing Exercise (RR-96-01)
Hunter M. Breland, Sydell T. Carlton, and Susan Taylor
Based on the results of a Phase I investigation into the nature of legal writing, a prototype writing assessment, the Diagnostic Writing Skills Test (DWST) for entering law students, was developed. The DWST is composed of two multiple-choice sub tests based on prompts and responses to the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) Writing Sample and contains a total of 48 items. The DWST was administered to over 500 entering law students in five different law schools, and data were collected on the performance of these students in first-year legal writing courses and in law school courses generally. The experimental data indicated that the prototype DWST: (1) was completed by 89 percent of students who were allowed 45 minutes of testing time and 97 percent of students who were allowed one hour, (2) was relatively difficult for the students tested, and (3) had relatively low reliability compared to traditional tests. Despite the difficulty and reliability problems, the DWST predicted performance in legal writing courses better than either the LSAT or undergraduate grade-point average. The prototype test was second only to the LSAT in the prediction of law school grade average, and it made a significant contribution to the prediction of law school writing course grade and law school grade average when used along with the LSAT and undergraduate grade-point average in the prediction. Gender and ethnic comparisons indicated that a test like the DWST would reduce gender and ethnic differences slightly if incorporated as part of the LSAT. Next steps are to revise the prototype test to reduce its difficulty; to correct some questions that seemed confusing to students; and to increase its reliability.