To Ron, With Love

How do you thank someone who was a constant presence in your career in large-scale testing from its very beginning in 1989 all the way through to 2018 when a conversation with him helped you realize it was time to move on to a new phase of your life?

Where do I begin to tell the story of the various ways in which Ron Hambleton had such a profound impact on me simply by being the man he was and by treating people the way he did? Probably the only way he knew how.

It’s a story that many of us could tell.

I guess I start at the beginning.

Ron Hambleton – Psychometrician

As Rich Hill often told the story, I didn’t know how to spell IRT when he hired me to join Advanced Systems in the fall of 1989. Nevertheless, he handed me a floppy disk containing BILOG, and told me to begin processing the data for state assessment programs.  For the next eight months, my copy of Item Response Theory Principles and Applications by Hambleton and Swaminathan never left my side. The pages in Chapter 10, Test Equating, became particularly dog-eared.

Two years later, strictly as an observer, I attended my first TAC meeting in Princeton, New Jersey.  There he was, Ron Hambleton, the name from the book, bigger than life, sitting at the table at the front of the room.  That was the first of many TAC meetings I attended over the next three decades with Ron at the table.

Then in early 1995, I found myself standing on the opposite side of a table responding to pointed questions from a panel made up of Dick Jaeger, Dan Koretz, Bob Linn, Jason Millman, Susan Phillips, and chairperson Ron Hambleton. The panel’s findings in their Review of the Measurement Quality of the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, 1991-1994, and the Department’s response to it was a defining, pivotal, transformative moment in my career and arguably for the field of large-scale testing. We were the canary in the Kentucky authentic assessment coal mine, and we didn’t make it.  But it was Ron’s artful handling of that very tense situation, both during the two days of testimony before the committee and in his follow-up visits to clarify and gather additional information that had the most lasting impression on me. I think that it’s fair to say that lifelong grudges were formed over that panel and report, but none were with Ron.

By the time the KIRIS evaluation report was released in June 1995 my career at Advanced Systems had been over for nearly two months and I never worked for a testing company again. If my interactions with Ron had also ended in 1995, I know that I would still be writing today about the impact that he had on my professional career.

Fortunately, there was so much more to come.

Ron Hambleton – Colleague and Teacher

From 1998 through 2018 my connection with Ron was centered around Massachusetts and the MCAS Technical Advisory Committee. In the early years, I was working with the Department and Ron was a member of the TAC. When I left the Department to join the Center for Assessment in 2002, our roles were reversed (at least on paper). I became a member of the TAC and Ron was a special consultant to the Department.

There are so many experiences that I could share that would be familiar to any of you who have served on a TAC with Ron. I will limit myself to three stories from those years.

In the early years of MCAS, Jeff Nellhaus and I crossed Massachusetts conducting a series of Reporting Workshops when results of the spring MCAS results were released – the following November or December in those days. We travelled west to east, our tour starting off, off Broadway before a small, mostly friendly crowd in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. One year, Ron invited Jeff to stop in Amherst on the way to Pittsfield to conduct a seminar on MCAS for interested UMASS faculty and grad students, a not so friendly crowd. I had no formal role at the meeting, but Ron introduced me and graciously said a few nice words about me and my work.  Jeff presented and answered questions, we enjoyed a very nice dinner with Ron (weren’t those always fun), and we drove the rest of the way through the light snow to Pittsfield. All rather uneventful.

A couple of months later I attended the next Board meeting of the New England Educational Research Organization (NEERO).  As a non-academic, I  was regarded as somewhat of an oddity and an outsider on the Board, even as President of NEERO. That all changed that day. A couple of UMASS faculty on the NEERO Board who had attended the MCAS seminar started telling the others, “Ron Hambleton knows Charlie. He knew Charlie’s name and talked about his work.”  That’s all it took.  I was now accepted into the club.

My second story took place one summer Sunday while I was still with the Massachusetts Department of Education.  I was in San Antonio in advance of an MCAS management and test form construction meeting with Harcourt, our assessment contractor. The Harcourt psychometricians were wrapping up equating and all signs indicated that student performance on the high-stakes tenth-grade English language arts test had improved over the previous year.

The phone rang in my hotel room early Sunday morning. After equating, the results showed a significant decline in tenth grade performance. I hurried over to Harcourt headquarters, and after a short time, we placed a call to Ron because, well, who else would you call. He stayed on that first call with us for about 2 hours as we worked through all possible explanations. He joined two other calls during the day and early evening on Sunday as we reported the results of proposed analyses. Eventually, we agreed on the cause of the problem (the writing prompt, of course) and Ron proposed a solution that produced results consistent with the data. On Monday, Ron was back on the phone with the full MCAS and Harcourt management team to explain the problem, the proposed solution, and assure them that it was all on the up and up.

I learned a lot from Ron that weekend. I learned that equating would not always be as clean as it appeared in Chapter 10 or as methodical as in the “equating rules” Neal Kington developed in response to the KIRIS panel’s criticism and recommendations.  There’s an art to the science. And art requires an artist. Sometimes equating requires more than methodically following steps in an equating plan, beginning with a deep understanding of the data. I also learned a lot about the importance of keeping your head while all around you are losing theirs. And I learned what it means to be “all in” and “on your game” as soon as you pick up the phone. All of those lessons served me well years later when I was the one answering the phone on Friday night or Sunday afternoon, assessing the situation, coming up with a creative solution, and explaining it all to the Commissioner on Monday morning.

Finally, like he did with so many of us, Ron warmly integrated me into the UMASS family, facilitating mutually beneficial connections with current students, former students, and faculty. Some of my strongest professional and personal relationship resulted from those connections. Still today, if I receive a phone call, text, or e-mail asking my thoughts about an assessment issue, it’s most likely from a UMASS alum.

Ron Hambleton – The Man

As much as I learned from Ron, directly and indirectly, during the formal interactions described above, I learned so many valuable lessons just from being around him – some even more valuable than not worrying about time limits when making a presentation.

At a packed AERA/NCME session early in my career, I watched as Ron debated Ben Wright on the use of Rasch v. IRT (yes, they are different). It became clear quickly that Ron, despite solid facts and solid arguments (and sticking to the time limits) was simply overmatched that day by the personality and style of Ben Wright. Ron let the show run its course, played the straight man, and took it all in stride.

As the KIRIS evaluation mentioned above unfolded, I witnessed Ron react with grace to several instances of passive aggressive behavior as he was seeking clarifying or follow-up information. He could have made a tense and awkward situation worse. He didn’t.

Although he was always so, so busy, Ron never said no when I called, whether to ask him to review NECAP equating results, to participate in a standard setting session I was proposing for the Large-Scale Assessment Conference, or even when I asked him to give an address at the Opening Session of the NEERO conference being held in Northampton, MA (down the road from UMASS).  Ron had no connection to NEERO and knew that he would be speaking to an audience skeptical, at best, about the benefits of testing, but he came, he saw, and he conquered – even providing background information on some of the early quantitative leaders of NEERO.

I was able to convince Jeff Nellhaus and Kit Viator to hold a couple of MCAS TAC meetings in that same historic hotel in Northampton, MA. My motive was to remove the temptation for them to “stop by” the office before or after the meeting and the threat of one of them getting called back to the office during the meeting. An unintended consequence was seeing the pride that Ron felt in being able to host the TAC members on his turf. He was always such a gracious host.

On numerous occasions over the years, I watched Ron put in extra time and effort with successive MCAS assessment directors to ensure that the contracts that funded his students’ work were secure. He was always about the students.

Speaking of Ron, his students, and the TAC… For a couple of years, the MCAS TAC meetings were held at the Hilton at Logan Airport. I was returning to my room one evening after taking a walk around the airport after dinner. As I exited the skyway into the hotel and started down the final stretch toward the elevators, I heard voices coming from the TAC meeting room. Ron was there with his student who would be presenting to the TAC the following morning. I stood in the hallway for a few minutes and listened to Ron giving the student the opportunity to practice their presentation and preparing them for the questions that likely would be asked by the state and TAC members.

A few years later, the TAC meetings had shifted to the Sheraton Commander outside of Harvard Square. Diet Coke was not available at the hotel, so Ron and I would share the 20 oz. bottle I picked up in Harvard Square in the morning before the meeting or at lunch. One day, I needed extra caffeine in the late afternoon and grabbed a regular Pepsi. When we are alone at the end of the day, Ron talked with me about avoiding regular soda and the importance of limiting sugar intake, particularly for a person of my age and conditioning. Nobody had ever done that for me in a professional setting. I was glad that he felt comfortable enough to do so.

Fast forward to July 2018 and the ITC conference in Montreal. Day 1 of the conference was capped off with a plenary session in which Ron recounted his personal history with IRT. It occurred to me that afternoon that Ron himself was my personal history with IRT.

A couple of days later as I was about to leave the conference, I ran into a relaxed and happy Ron and Else chatting with friends in the hotel lobby. He noticed the bottle of Diet Coke I was carrying. I told him to wait right there, took the escalator down to the gift shop, and bought him one more bottle of Diet Coke.

As is clear from the overlap among the stories in my three sections, it is impossible for me to separate the psychometrician from the teacher from the colleague from the man who Ron Hambleton was. Thank you, Ron. You were the real thing.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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