08/27/2008 01:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

At the Wall Street Journal, Firewall Crumbling?

At the Wall Street Journal, Firewall Crumbling?

The best newspapers try to establish a firewall between the reporting staff and the editorial folk. Over the years, no paper has excelled at maintaining this barrier better than the Wall Street Journal. The reporters were first rate. The editorial page was called, either by Salon or Slate, I forget which, "a viper's nest of right-wing vitriol." When right-winger Rupert Murdoch acquired the WSJ, many people fretted that the separation of reporters and editors might end.

Today's piece by John Hechinger on the latest SAT results might be taken as evidence that the wall is crumbling. How else to explain the extraordinary lapse in logic in today's story. Keeping in mind that WSJ editors have plumped for vouchers and displayed the usual right-wing irrational hatred of the NEA, here's the opening sentence of Hechinger's story:

"High-school students' performance on the SAT college-entrance exams stalled, and the gap widened between low-scoring minority groups and the overall population, raising questions about the quality of teaching in U. S. schools."

That word "stalled" is bad enough. Two years at the same score with a changing test-taking population is "stalled?" Does Mr. Hechinger expect Tiger Woods to score farther under par each time he competes in a tournament?

But stalled is not the real problem. The part of that sentence that left me gasping is that incredible jump across a chasm of illogic to contend that a widening gap between minorities and the overall population raises "questions about the quality of teaching in U. S. schools." That's a stunner. Who put that non sequitur in there? The SAT, high or low, is silent on quality of teaching. As people have noted and as the College Board's own data show, the scores are good predictors of the proportion of Lexuses, Mercedes, and BMW's in a school's feeder area. These days they'd probably be a good predictor of the number of foreclosure signs in a neighborhood.

The SAT's creator, Carl Campbell Brigham, had this to say about his product as it rolled out in 1926: "The present state of all efforts of men to measure or in any way estimate the worth of other men, or to evaluate the results of their nurture [author's note: !!], or to reckon their potential possibilities [!!] does not warrant any certainty of prediction. This additional test now made available through the instrumentality of the College Entrance Examination Board may help resolve a few perplexing problems, but it should be regarded merely as a supplementary record [!!]. To place to great emphasis on test scores is as dangerous as the failure properly to evaluate any score or rank in conjunction with other measures and estimates which it supplements.

Mr. Hechinger was assisted in his illogic by stupidity at the College Board. "College Board officials attributed much of that gap [between boys and girls] to the greater number of girls who take the SAT. History is dead both at the WSJ and the College Board. In its 1977 report on the SAT decline, the Board's analysis panel noted that boys and girls had about the same verbal scores, as they do today although boys consistently have scored higher over the years. But it also observed that in 1960 the math difference was 55 points and in 1976 it was 52 points. In 1960, women represented 42.7 percent of all testtakers and 47.5 percent in 1970. So more girls take the SAT today than boys and the difference is 33 points. Mr. Hechinger, Mr. Caperton, there's a problem in the "more girls" assertion.

The bounds of Mr. Hechinger's illogic, though, seem unlimited. He quotes a Kaplan official that the results "suggest the power of test preparation...." That might well be true, but if so, how can the SAT results possibly say anything about the "quality of teaching?" And if the scores are stagnant, where's the power? (Incidentally, Kaplan now accounts for more than half of the Washington Post Co's revenue so don't expect any radical test reform articles from them).

Mr. Hechinger also notes that an increasing number of schools are making the SAT optional "saying they can fill their classes with qualified students without them." Now what does THAT say about the quality of teaching in U. S. schools?

All articles look for an opening line that grabs the reader. I think the one in this story, though, was slipped by one of Rupert's flunkies.