William James Popham

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William James Popham

Educator William James Popham (born 1930) was a leading figure in the movement that promoted criterion-referenced measurements and was active and productive in the area of educational test development.

W. James Popham was born July 31, 1930, to William James and Anne I. Popham of Portland, Oregon. He grew up in Portland and attended the University of Portland, where he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1953 and received his Master's degree in education a year later. After receiving his doctorate from Indiana University in 1958, Popham accepted an assistant professorship at Kansas State College in Pittsburg, Kansas. He stayed there for two years. He then accepted a position at San Francisco State College, where he taught for two years until he was appointed as an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

Popham taught at UCLA, earning associate and full professorships. In 1968 he won the UCLA Distinguished Teaching award. Upon his retirement in June, 1991, he was named professor emeritus. Popham won several teaching awards throughout his career as an educator, including a 1985 distinguished alumnus award from the Indiana University School of Education.

Popham was an active leader in regional and national organizations that promoted educational evaluation. He served on the editorial boards of several major research and evaluation journals, including Educational Research Quarterly, Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, and Evaluation and the Health Professions. In 1969-1970 he served as the president of the California Educational Research Association. An active member of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), he acted as chairperson for the AERA's Division B Committee on Instructional Objectives in 1968 and was vice president for AERA's Division D (Measurement and Research Methodology) from 1971 to 1972. Popham was elected president of the American Educational Research Association in 1977 and served one year in that position. From 1978 to 1981 he acted as the founding editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a quarterly journal published by AERA.

While teaching at UCLA, Popham created and served as the director of the Instructional Objectives Exchange, a clearinghouse for behavioral objectives for educators, and also worked with the Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development. Throughout his career he promoted the field of educational evaluation by presenting papers, creating videotapes for use in the classroom, and editing and writing books, including Educational Evaluation, one of the first singly-authored textbooks on that subject to be used in introductory level education classes.

In the field of educational evaluation, Popham based his work on that of B.F. Skinner, the noted behavioralist. He became involved with the programmed instruction movement, which focused on carefully sequenced learning experiences and clarified expectations for results. However, teachers using the programmed instruction method began to ask how they could evaluate when students were ready to move on with the learning sequence. These questions led to the development of more effective evaluation, which was the basis for the referenced-based movement.

Robert Glaser, in 1963, was the first to note the distinction between norm-referenced measurement and criterion-referenced measurement. The former is an evaluation of a student's performance relative to others, or the "norm, " while the latter is an evaluation of a student's performance in relation to what he/she can or cannot do; that is, to determine an individual's status with respect to a defined behavioral domain. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of growth and optimism in the field of educational evaluation. During this time there was an increased preference for criterion-referenced measurement because it provided an "absolute" interpretation about whether a student had mastered a defined set of criteria and was more compatible with the requirements of educational evaluation.

Popham's interests and involvements mirrored this shift from programmed instruction to norm-referenced measurement and, eventually, to criterion-referenced measurement. In 1969, in his article "Implications of Criterion-Referenced Measurement" in the Journal of Educational Measurement, Popham stated that criterion-referenced measurement provided more suitable assessment devices than norm-referenced measurement and could be used to enhance instruction, evaluation, and decision-making by teachers. In his book Criterion-Referenced Measurement (1978) Popham said that "a criterion-referenced test is designed to produce a clear description of what an examinee's performance on the test actually means." The criterion-referenced measurement movement had a profound impact on the field and was the foundation for the movement toward curriculum-based assessment and measurement. Curriculum-based assessment and evaluation was considered the cutting edge in educational evaluation in the 1990s, and it appeared to be the direction toward which the field was moving. This shift, however, could not have happened without Popham's innovative work in criterion-referenced measurement in the 1960s and 1970s. Popham believed that the role of evaluation and measurement in education would continue to grow and be "instructionally catalytic." Test material and results could be expected to increasingly influence what was taught in the classroom.

Popham's success and influence in his field was partly due to his lively, clear writing style and ability to make complex issues understandable. For example, in explaining the concept of "authentic assessment" in a 1993 article in the Phi Delta Kappan journal, he described a theoretical prehistoric class, "Sabertooth Tiger Hunting 101." "When prehistoric students completed a course … they were probably required to display their mastery by taking part in an actual tiger hunt, " he wrote. "The target tiger's teeth were sufficiently sharp so that all examinees recognized that the assessment activity could induce a premature, yet thoroughly authentic, death."

After retiring from UCLA, Popham served as director of IOX Assessment Associates (formerly Instructional Objectives Exchange), a center for test development. In the 1990s, he also was active in evaluating and appraising HIV educational programs and curricula. He directed an AIDS-related technical assistance project for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, helping teachers evaluate the effectiveness and caliber of AIDS education programs, which in a 1993 article in Phi Beta Kappan, Popham called "deplorable." He wrote a text-book on educational statistics with K.A. Sirotnik in an attempt to make statistics seem more like common sense to students. In 1995 he wrote Classroom Assessment: What Teachers Need to Know, a basic guide for classroom teachers. In 1997, he remained active as IOX director, living and working in southern California. Popham was well-liked and respected by his colleagues for his contributions to the field of educational evaluation. But above all, according to Popham himself, "Students are my main reason for staying active in the field of evaluation and measurement."

Further Reading

Brief bits of biographical information can be pieced together from the forewords and introductions of Popham's textbooks and edited collections, but no definitive collection of biographical information exists. His philosophy and beliefs about educational evaluation and assessment can be gleaned from his numerous writings. A partial listing of his textbooks and articles follows: Classroom Assessment: What Teachers Need to Know (1995); Educational Evaluation (3rd edition, 1993); Understanding Statistics in Education, with Kenneth A. Sirotnik (1992); and Criterion-Referenced Measurement (1978). See also the following articles by Popham: "Wanted: AIDS Education That Works, " Phi Beta Kappan (March 1993); "Circumventing the High Costs of Authentic Assessment, " Phi Beta Kappan (February 1993); "Educational Testing in America: What's Right, What's Wrong? A Criterion-Referenced Perspective, " Educational Measurement (January 1993); "Combating AIDS on the Front Lines, " School Administrator (August 1992); "Two-plus Decades of Educational Objectives, " International Journal of Educational Research (January 1987); "Well-Crafted Criterion-Referenced Tests, " Educational Leadership (February 1978); and, with T.R. Husek, "Implications of Criterion-Referenced Measurement, " Journal of Educational Measurement (January 1969). □

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