"Study: Despite Hard Courses, High Schoolers Learn Less." That paradoxical headline ran over a story in the Los Angeles Times February 23. Similar headlines appeared in the New York Times and papers all over the country. The stories under the headlines reported two related studies. One study found that high school students were taking more and tougher courses in math and science and getting better grades. Another found that NAEP reading scores of high school seniors had declined a bit since 1992.
One sign of intelligence is the ability to link disparate pieces of information and make sense of it all. But linking changes in science and math course-taking to reading scores might well be finding a connection that isn't there. Maybe if the reading test contained the vocabulary of the math and science courses the scores might go up but that is most unlikely to happen.
So why did the reading scores dip? Well, when was the last time you heard a Right Honorable and Self-Important School Reform Commission say that the problem with schools is that kids don't read enough Shakespeare? Or Faulkner? An occasional lament is heard that the western canon now includes Steinbeck, Morrison and Angelou, but no reform commission that I know of has ever laid the blame--the blame for whatever the commission is blaming the schools for--at the feet of English teachers. "A Nation At Risk" mentioned what English courses should teach, but its major concerns were science and technology.
The perpetual cry for the last 50 years has been more math, more science, more math, more science. "A Nation at Risk" called for adding computer science because "computers and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our lives" (no doubt the only image in a reform report to evoke simultaneously both a sex act and Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
It is quite possible that reading scores are down because the kids are taking more math and science courses. Sure there are other more familiar villains to charge: television, video games, the strange spelling and syntax of text messaging, even multitasking. But the number of courses the average high school student takes in mathematics, science, and computer science enroute to a diploma have all increased since 1990 (English classes have not). The time for these courses has to come from somewhere. Reading about quarks or taking derivatives jeopardize Jane Austen.
Mostly, though, I think the kids just don't give a damn about NAEP and I bet they give less of a damn now than they did 15 years ago. Nor should they care. I once said to then-NAEP Executive Director, Archie Lapointe, that NAEP systematically underestimates achievement because kids don't take it seriously. Yes, he laughed, the major challenge for NAEP was keeping the kids awake during the test.
Over the last 15 years, much of schooling has been reduced to testing. SATs, ACT's, APs, high school exit examinations, formative assessments (in reality, just little tests). Plus test-obsessed NCLB. These tests all have consequences (although some, like the SAT, have many fewer than commonly believed). And now, in the second semester of the senior year comes NAEP (did the Senior Slump exist in 1992? I don't recall having heard that phrase back then).
Dude, you seriously want me to take this test seriously? It won't tell me or my parents anything. It won't tell the teachers or administrators or district anything (NAEP does not report below the state level). It means doodley squat, nothing, nada, nil for my future and you want me to give it my all? It wouldn't surprise me if teachers and administrators, saturated by tests and test-related anxieties communicate through body language that kids can blow off NAEP with no consequences. In fact, NAEP is having trouble these days getting schools to agree to test.
Motivation bears tremendously on test outcomes. When I directed Virginia's testing programs, my staff developed a computer program to detect what the state superintendent called "inappropriate administrative procedures"--cheating to the rest of us. One year a heretofore middling rural district popped way up. We visited the local superintendent to determine how he'd done it.
He had done it by transferring testing from the academic realm to the sporting world. You should bust your gut, not to show how smart you are or how well your teachers taught you but so that we can beat the adjacent archrival county like we try to in football, basketball and baseball.
If you walked around the school and asked kids "What are you going to do on the SRA's?" The answer was, "Beat Orange County!" The week of testing, teachers dressed as cheerleaders and the schools held pep rallies in the auditorium. Students in grades not tested cheered on those who were under the gun. It worked.
Find me something that makes seniors take NAEP seriously and then maybe I'll take 12th grade NAEP results seriously.