Lost on the IRT

by Martin Harris 

Most likely, only a minor fraction of this readership will recall The Old Howard, a former church-turned-athenaeum-turned-

Martin Harris

burlesque-hall near Scollay Square; or the “Lost on the MTA” song, both in Boston; the IRT in NYC when subway fare was a dime; or the public graded schools of those post-WWII years, when reading and math Proficiencies were just about 100% because, if you didn’t pass the late-Spring exams in, say, Grade 5, you weren’t promoted to Grade 6. All the above were daily facts-of-life in 1950; within a dozen or so years, all were either restored-antiques (“Lost on the MTA”, in the mid-60’s) a pile of rubble (the Old Howard) fares price-revised upward(on the subways) , or replaced for ideological reasons (achievement-promotion out, social-promotion in) as the ‘60’s “progressed”. And most likely, only the same minor fraction will approve of combining the two subway items as a Humble Scribe mnemonic device for illustrating the damage done to the once-proud K-12 school system by this intellectual fallacy in the subsequent half-century. In this “re-write”, “Lost on the IRT” is meant to suggest the achievement-damage from Inadequate Replacement Testing, as edu-crats competed with each other to avoid their dismal NAEP results by designing, deploying, and publicizing the seemingly superior student results from such deliberately diluted “tests” as TCAP in Tennessee and first NSRE, then NECAP, and soon something even easier in Vermont. Reducing class size (promised by educator-experts, you recall, to send achievement scores and Proficiency levels back up to where they were pre- ‘60’s) was equally fallacious, but maybe the wasted taxpayer money was less damaging than the never-learned student competencies.

Educators in 1950 couldn’t have imagined not getting almost all their students to Proficiency in such foundation learning as reading and math; that’s why, those very few of us who couldn’t pass the May tests were given their choice of remedial summer school or grade repetition, as we passers savored the brief success of earned promotion. We’ll never know –this history is similarly “Lost on the IRT” — whether ‘60‘s-based student resistance to schooling preceded the then-new adoption of promote-‘em-all-anyway, or whether the promote-‘em-all-by-age-group notion somehow encouraged teachers not to teach and students not to learn. Either way, the very essence of sequentially graded schooling –the idea that you can learn harder stuff only after you’ve mastered easier stuff—got “Lost on the IRT”, once students, having proven their incompetency in, say, basic reading, were being promoted anyway, only to face even more difficult reading material and fall even further behind their peers. With that underlying illogic, it’s small wonder that the once-taken-for-granted all-students-Proficient reality so grievously collapsed. But it doesn’t explain why educators would then blame and supplant their old and successful achievement tests (thereby volunteering to get “Lost on the IRT”) and not their new teaching and promotion practices. Nor does it explain why the once-successful teaching of, say, reading, somehow became –a little train lingo here—side-tracked or even de-railed. Were it not so, a new definition and formal adoption of so-called “Common Core” content and teaching standards wouldn’t even be needed or formally adopted.

* * * * * *

The content hasn’t changed: in the primary grades, it’s still English only. There are still only 26 symbols, a few irregular pronunciations of some letter combinations, and a few new words in the basic vocabulary replacing no-longer-current old ones. Primary-school kids in East Asia, in contrast, have to memorize 2000 symbols in their ancient “concept-alphabet”, a few dozen new symbols in their modern “phonic-alphabet”. And in most of Europe, grade-schoolers are learning to read not just English, but their native language and, typically, a few nearby ones, some not even Indo-European, and some with quite different alphabets, as well.

Here, the educators tell the civilians, changes have happened in both content and presentation, explaining why it was necessary to formalize the instruction of Ebonics as a primary language a few years back before they changed their minds on that subject, and explaining why non-English-speakers in the classroom are a totally-new problem-set requiring, of course, totally new theory and practice (but never acknowledging the far-higher percentages of non-English speakers in the far larger classes of the early 20th century, a challenge which (mostly urban and high-poverty) public schools conquered successfully about when the brand-new IRT had the original nickel fare. History/math hint: 1904. McGuffey’s reader was the “common core” text until the 1930’s, when Dick and Jane took over. Now every publisher seeking sales has its own “basal reader.” History reading hint: compare the literacy level of the letters home by Civil War enlistees with the e-mails of same-age young adults today. And a “Lost on the IRT” test-score hint: Vermont newspapers see fit to publish only the NECAP scores, but the NAEP’s are on the federal education web pages, and a subject-by subject comparison is enlightening.

We’re told, for example, (Rutland Herald, 8 Feb 12)that “…72% of high school juniors are Proficient in reading at their grade level…” but the last-published (2010) National Digest of Educational Statistics” has the same cohort scoring in the 268-278 range, varying according to urban v. rural, on the 40-year-long NAEP test series, thereby showing a Proficiency rate of 41% in 2009. The 2011 stats are on the NAEP web page, and the total State cohort has gained a point, from 273 to 274, since ’09. The page doesn’t offer Proficiency percentages but they can’t, mathematically, have changed more than a point: the 60%-or-so majority of Grade 8 students is still less than competent in reading, maybe not “Lost on the IRT” but certainly lost in a grade 8 text. Some would see irony in the new face of Scollay Square, its landmark structure no longer a classic burlesque hall but a State government-centre architecturally dominant monolith; or in the Progressive origins of the “Lost on the MTA” song, composed as a protest against public buy-out of the private line system, by activists infuriated that a private company should make a profit; or in the exit-fee system then in place: Charlie was “lost forever ‘neath the streets of Boston…” because he lacked the exra nickel then required to go from station platform to street level.”…and his fate is still unknown…” The same could be said of students labeled “Proficient” under IRT definitions who, on arrival at semi-tech job or first year of college, find they can’t do the required reading or math.