In the early 2000s, Mark Schneider watched American students get slightly better at math and reading, one year after the next.
It was the height of the Bush administration, with No Child Left Behind in full swing. That was the law that required schools to regularly test their students in reading and math and sometimes face consequences based on their scores.
Schneider, then an administration education official, got used to presiding over good tidings. "It was a good news story," he recalled. "It was good for the country. How could anyone be against increased performance for minorities?"
He left the administration in 2008, and since then, as an independent researcher and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, he's watched the results from afar, and they haven't been as good. In recent years, performance in reading and math has stagnated. The trend continues, with the release last week of math and reading scores for high school seniors.
"We're stalled," he said. "That's the bottom line."
From 2013 to 2015, reading scores for high school seniors dipped (from 288 to 287 out of 500), while math scores also went down a point (from 153 to 152 out of 300). "We're not making any progress," Schneider said. He had the same concern last fall when the government released test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders, which showed a similar pattern.
So why have Americans hit an academic wall? Can it be broken?
Schneider used to be commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the government arm charged with a loaded job: figuring out what students know, whether it's enough, and telling their parents and taxpayers how smart, or dumb, they are.
Primarily, the federal government does that through one test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The idea was simple: Create a device that purely assesses what students know, as opposed to measuring the different advantages they might have.
NAEP is now said to be the gold standard of exams. The results have no stakes for test takers or teachers — it doesn't affect funding or college admissions — so there's little incentive to game, cheat or spend hours drilling its material.
The creators of NAEP have long said that their goal lines are "aspirational." In plain English, that means that the test is hard.
No Child Left Behind has been derided for its narrow focus, for its harsh consequences, for its rankings of schools as passing or failing a certain benchmark. But as Schneider sees it, the gains of the early 2000s came from a less maligned part of the law: the disaggregation of test scores by student group, including ethnicities, disability and income.
For decades, it was impossible to know how black, poor and Latino students were doing. But with the law, states had to report their test scores, and that spotlight, Schneider and others contend, forced schools to pay attention to their performance.
"There were a lot of dark corners where we were shoving kids and throwing them and not looking," said Schneider. "No Child put light into all these corners."
The stalled test scores tell Schneider that schools have improved as much as they possibly could have by teaching students they've previously ignored — which is to say, it would take another radical change to improve performance.
Jack Buckley, another former NCES commissioner who now leads research for the College Board, finds that theory plausible. "Whatever the focus was since the '80s on education has returned all that we're going to get out of it," he said. "We need something substantially different ... to see more growth."
Last year, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a replacement of No Child that backs off some of its most punitive measures and puts the question of how to rank schools largely into the hands of states. Schneider fears that the policy is insufficient.
Among the challenges facing educators is how to address factors outside the classroom. Consider math scores, which have increased at a faster clip than reading scores. Experts say the reading curve is harder to bend because reading better reflects at-home factors — by kindergarten, a student born in a home of educated, English-speaking parents has probably been exposed to far more words and books than peers who weren't.
"It's hard to move the very top," Buckley said. "It's not like inflation, where we should always expect to see prices go up. There's not any reason to see average academic achievement go up. At some point you reach a level where, unless you have a massive change, things should stabilize."
The scores came as the country continues to teach and test Common Core State Standards, a set of learning benchmarks intended to make school more demanding and lessons more consistent among states. The scores also follow years of money and energy being poured into what's become known as the education reform movement, an effort to revamp how teachers are hired and fired and to make schools more efficient.
Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. tried to put the new scores in context. "Over the past seven years, schools have undergone some of the most significant changes in decades — work that is being led by educators who are retooling their classroom practices to adapt to new and higher standards," he said in a statement. He said that results would not be seen overnight, and that Americans needed to be patient, but not passive, in pursuing change.
The new scores also show how complicated interpreting them can be.
Scores on the lowest end of the reading and math tests were worse than in 2013. Buckley guessed that the change can be explained, at least in part, by the nation's improving graduation rate: if fewer students are dropping out, it means that more of them are being tested. And the would-be dropouts are usually lower performers. Still, more kids are graduating.