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.