Shaun Johnson is a blogger and assistant professor of elementary education at the College of Education at Towson University in Maryland. He has been active in the movement to protest overuse of standardized tests by persuading parents to opt their children out of the testing, an option few exercise or even know they have.

I told him I thought that was a bad idea. He agreed to debate the issue here. I start:

Mathews: You realize, I assume, that the vast majority of parents approve of testing and want their schools to be accountable in this way. Politicians who embrace the notion that we have to junk standardized tests don’t go far. You are never going to get much support for an opt-out. Why do it? Why not instead come up with an alternative that makes sense to most parents? You don’t have that yet.

Johnson: There’s a lot of assumptions being thrown around here. I think you assume incorrectly that a vast majority of parents approve of testing and want “schools to be accountable in this way.” It’s the only “way” that’s been offered to them within the mainstream conversation on education. As a result, parents, and even many educators, don’t necessarily receive the perfect information to make rational decisions. The test-driven mandate is what predominates in educational discourse in both traditional and non-traditional media.

Now, I would neither be so quick to diminish the support for an opt-out movement nor the clarity of which it can be presented to parents. Think about it. Parents, students, and educators alike are expected to grapple with complicated terminologies like value-added, high-stakes, choice, charters, vouchers, and Adequate Yearly Progress. Yet, it does not seem complicated to me to give parents the hope that their children are more than test scores, that they no longer need to relinquish the data to those who seem less accountable to actual education and more accountable to profits.

Proponents of opt-out movements — and there are several — are troubled by the deleterious effects of data-obsessed “reforms” within education. Parents with whom I speak and work clearly want their schools funded, but they don’t want the money going to testing companies, their materials, the graders, and ultimately the curriculum they’ll be forced to deal with, which will inevitably include millions more for professional development and consultants. Remember, this is not a fight about accountability. It’s an argument about who gets to define it and on what terms. I don’t think you can seriously make the claim that what has been done so far has the best interests of students and teachers in mind, and in turn the parents. Can you?

Mathews: Sure I can. The current testing system was the result of democratic processes. Voters elected the state governors and legislators who appointed the state school board members who made these decisions. In some cases they elected the state school superintendent. Folks who opposed that kind of testing had an opportunity to make their arguments known. The people who preferred these systems, whose growth began with Democratic governors like Dick Riley and Bill Clinton, won those various democratic encounters. They and the people that voted for them felt they were acting in the best public interests.

As you said, voters, taxpayers and parents have not been shown a reasonable alternative. What have you got to show them now that has worked in real schools and will win their confidence?

Johnson: There’s a kernel of truth to your initial statement: the democratic process certainly sent D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee packing in just a few short years. In her case in particular, Rhee seemed to quickly ditch the public sector in favor of the private, raising a boatload of money to impact legislation in several states that, to a casual observer, seems to have little to do with educating young persons.

Don’t you get the impression that private interests, from business leaders and financiers to philanthropists, wield an inordinate amount of influence on public policy? I thought schools, at least for now, were venerable public institutions within American-style democracy. You might also assume too much that our democratic process is representative of the electorate. And this might not be the best of political climates to assert that our democracy is truly representative of the people. Yet, you also erroneously conflate high-stakes testing with accountability, as if they are one and the same. They are not.

This implies that those who are against testing in its current form must be against all accountability; moreover, that opponents of the high-stakes environment advocate for simply crossing our fingers and praying that students learn something. Both of these statements are untrue. But the more I think about it, it’s interesting that the burden of proof is on myself and others who have been cautioning against high-stakes testing for the last decade or more. Innumerable education research studies and reports from the likes of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, and thousands of anecdotal accounts, underscore the ineffectiveness of and the damages caused by the current high-stakes and punitive brands of accountability.

An opt-out movement against high-stakes assessments is not just an argument for alternative paradigms. It’s an empowerment movement for parents, educators, and parents who are educators who have been shut out of the negotiations. I’m well aware of the history of NCLB. It’s origins can be traced as far back as A Nation at Risk, perhaps earlier still. Bi-partisan support is a relative term, and the so-called bi-partisanship surrounding NCLB does in no way strengthen the contention that current education “reforms” are anything other than the purview of well-heeled special interests.

Mathews: Business groups are made up of voters, taxpayers and parents who have a right to participate in public life, as do the voters, taxpayers and parents who make up another very influential group of organizations in forming education policy — teachers unions. But you still haven’t answered my last question: What alternative means of assessment do you have to show people that has worked in real schools and will win their confidence? You can’t expect the smart parents you are asking to opt out to reject something in favor of nothing.

Johnson: I agree that business folks are everything you’ve identified and are entitled to a voice in the public square. But I think many reasonable persons would argue that the fundamental democratic credo of “one person, one vote” is being undermined by, for example, the relatively recent Citizens United decision out of the US Supreme Court.

What I don’t quite understand is this constant push from you for alternatives. Do you simply want alternatives or do you want the “right” kind of alternatives? Project methods and portfolio assessments have been around for decades. Innovative ideas like Connoisseurship and Portraiture have been around since the 1980s. School quality reviews handled by experienced educators are used in several nations. Classroom-based assessments prove to be more effective indicators because we can actually respond to classroom-level conditions. (When I taught in a “real” elementary school, the data from the previous March’s test was not made available until the following November. What good is that?)

Massachusetts produced a Statewide Authentic Accountability System and reform groups proposed an ERA Plan in Chicago. The list can go on. Nations with superior education systems seem to do quite well without large-scale assessments, better than us in fact. More affluent students in private and other independent schools are spared from the drill and kill methods and the pressures of high-stakes assessments plaguing our inner cities. DC parent empowerment groups are currently meeting to discuss alternatives to the kinds of reforms that have been imposed upon them.

If test-based accountability is so thoroughly effective, then why do Presidents and CEO’s spend the equivalent of college tuition to exempt their children? We certainly do know that an education fundamentally premised upon scores on high-stakes, standardized assessments does much more harm than good. Despite more than a decade of this focus, our public education system has yet to demonstrate significant improvements in safety, student well-being, equality, desegregation, and fair distributions of educational resources. So why keep doing it? Seriously. Why keep implementing and doubling down on these programs if the evidence is proving otherwise? It is insane to implement destructive methods just because there haven’t been alternatives proposed. That is, alternatives with which you see fit to agree.

Mathews: All I know is if you are asking me to opt out of one system, I would first like to know if there is an alternative that is working for existing schools and which I can embrace. I don’t think we have anything like that yet.

You’re wrong about private schools being free of test-based accountability. Most give their students some kind of standardized test to reassure parents that they are doing their jobs. The SAT rules those schools as cruelly as it does public schools.

Johnson: I think we do have the alternatives available, but a certain version of education reform dominates the conversation. Accountability in public education is not synonymous with high-stakes testing, and an undercurrent of this sentiment is already taking shape in many real schools that assuredly exist.

Mathews: Thanks Shaun. Please keep us in touch with how this movement is doing.