Travels With Charlie

Jan 07, 2020

A Reflection on the Timeless, Valued Work of Longtime Center for Assessment Colleague Charlie DePascale

The end of the decade signified the end of an era here at the Center for Assessment; Charlie DePascale officially retired on December 31, 2019, after more than 17 years as a Senior Associate. 

Charlie thankfully agreed to help us transition a few projects and continue his strategic communication leadership for a few more months, but I know that’s just temporary. I was in the office for a few hours on December 31, and it really hit me that it was Charlie’s last official day. As folks around the Center know, I’ve been in a bit of denial about this transition even though Charlie, in typical Charlie fashion, announced his intentions well in advance, developed a clear plan, and consistently communicated it to me. Now that I’m getting past this first stage of grief, I want to share some reflections from my almost two decades of working alongside Charlie (he likes to remind me that I’m the newcomer since I started at the Center six months after him).

The Unique Contributions of Charlie DePascale

Charlie is a complex, multi-dimensional person. Those traits are true of a lot of people, but as a hard core New Englander, it takes a little longer to uncover Charlie’s unique nature. He is easily one of the smartest and wittiest people I’ve ever met in my life, with an ability to cut to the heart of the issue like none other. He approaches educational assessment this way, but Charlie’s interests and insights also extend to sentimental observations of family, history, country, and to an unabashed enthusiasm for New England sports teams, Taylor Swift, and Women’s College Basketball.

This combination of intelligence and humor led several of us to strongly suggest Twitter as a great outlet for Charlie. If you haven’t followed him, I urge you to do so at @cdepascale. To give you a taste and to better share some observations of the many sides of Charlie, I do so through many of his tweets. While Charlie’s tweets cover a wide range of topics, he seems to effortlessly weave a lesson about assessment, history, or some other nugget into his observations. For example, you can see his cleverness as early as an elementary school student from this tweet:

Elem school: Marked wrong when I answered the day we turn the clocks back is the longest day of the year. Not saying that’s the main reason I ended up in this field, I also liked to chew on No. 2 pencils.

There’s little doubt he gave some teachers a run for their money and showed the early indications of a future measurement professional! 

Speaking Truth to Power

Charlie speaks truth to power with a clarity that makes us all perk up and wonder, “why didn’t we think of that?” While many of us were supporters of the Race to the Top assessment consortia, Charlie was unconvinced by the enthusiasm and foresaw many of the challenges that led to the eventual decline of the consortia assessments. Additionally, he foresaw many of the difficulties assessment developers experienced managing the digital transition from paper to computer, leading to a plethora of mode comparability studies. Charlie reminded us of this challenge while providing a prescient civics lesson: Has anyone looked into doing a mode adjustment for paper v. online ballots?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was a favorite target of Charlie’s. I think it had to do with the relative unquestioned authority of NAEP scores in the assessment community. Few are better than Charlie at raising critical and funny questions in these contexts:

Just waiting to put the finishing touches on my “NAEP Trend Line” Halloween costume. Will those 2019 arrows go up, down, or stay flat? Tricks or Treats from NAEP this year?

The test-based accountability movement, ushered in with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, was supposed to transform student learning and educational opportunity in this country. Charlie was far from the only critic of NCLB and its naïve theory of action, but he is skilled at questioning things that many others take for granted:

Thoughts on the drive home from #NERA50th: For the last 20 years we have marshaled all of the resources of our field for the purpose of measuring the hell out of arguably the two least interesting outcomes of K-12 education.

Of course, the easier targets of state-mandated teacher evaluation based on student test scores made for some fun tweets as well:

Hurtling off a cliff didn’t work out too well, so let’s give baby steps a try. @ScottFMarion keeps us moving forward with educator evaluation. #evaluation#feedback

Supporting Local Communities of Assessment Professional 

Charlie has been a longtime active member of the two leading professional organizations in our field: the National Council of Measurement in Education (NCME) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA). In fact, Charlie effectively co-chaired the NCME program committee several years ago; however his heart is with two regional AERA affiliates: the Northeast Educational Research Association (NERA) and the New England Educational Research Organization (NEERO).

Charlie has devoted countless hours over the years as a board member, conference organizer, and president in large part because of the mentoring roles these organizations play for graduate students and other new professionals. Coincidentally, my first academic presentation was at a NEERO conference in 1990, so it was great seeing Charlie in action at NEERO’s 50th anniversary conference this past April where he created a fabulous walk down memory lane. As you can tell from this tweet, he was excited about the anniversary, even taking the opportunity to weave in a little history as well:

Apollo 11, Woodstock, Sesame Street debut, NEERO established. A few landmark events from 1969 in no particular order. Counting down to the NEERO 50th Anniversary. April 24-26. Portsmouth, NH @NEEROrg#NEERO19

On a more serious note, Charlie’s presidential address at NERA in 2016, Living in a Post-Validity World: Cleaning up our Messick, is a thoughtful analysis of some of the most contentious issues in our field, delivered with insight and humor. But Charlie is not one for the spotlight and would rather spend his time supporting and encouraging young professionals in our field. This tweet both recognizes some emerging scholars while making clear where he thinks the field needs to go:

Started off #NERA50th in a session with two great qualitative studies related to assessment use in the classroom by teachers. Great way to begin the conference and our next 50 years. @NERAconference

Taylor Swift and Other Musical Interludes

If you have been lucky enough to follow Charlie on Twitter or his blog (Embrace the Absurd) or even luckier to visit him in his office, you’ll know he’s one of the biggest Taylor Swift fans you’ll ever meet. Many wonder why a 60-year old psychometrician would have attended more than 30 T-Swift shows, but like many other things about Charlie, once you get to know him a little bit, it all makes sense.

Each of the 5 times I got back home to Maine at 3:00 a.m. I said that’s my last Taylor Swift show at Gillette. Then I remember moments like this. #reptourFoxborough

Charlie is a devoted father and like many parents of early teenage girls, he found himself at his first Taylor Swift concert in 2008. Many dads would have stopped after that first show, but Charlie and his daughter, or sometimes just Charlie, continued to rack up Taylor concerts. This touching account brought tears to my eyes and warmed my heart.

But again, to know Charlie is know the importance of music in his life. His love of music is deep and wide, ranging from Taylor Swift to regular attendance at the Boston Pops July 4th show in Boston. But this passion all makes sense considering his undergraduate degree in music from Harvard College, where he proudly played in the marching band. 

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harvard Band with memories and lessons learned from my years in the band. #hub100th

It’s clear from those of us privileged enough to work with him that some of those lessons involved careful planning, coordination, teamwork, and responsibility.

Sports Fan 

Charlie is the quintessential Boston sports fan, but his loyalties extend to his Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Connecticut Women’s basketball dynasty. He’ll even throw a bone to Center Associate Director Chris Domaleski and cheer for soccer, but only for the U.S. Women’s team. 

Follow Charlie on Twitter and you’ll receive terrific sports commentary mixed with personal memories and some statistical lessons sprinkled in. As a Twitter master, Charlie regularly includes graphics or pictures in his tweets. I did not include many here, but here’s a “careful research study” leading up to the 2019 Super Bowl (notice the attention to detail in the graph):

Empirical Analysis of Super Bowl Week Confidence of @Patriots Fans (n=10)

  • One week out: I think the Pats can win. 
  • Wednesday 6:00 pm: There’s no way we can lose!! 
  • Saturday 6:00 pm: There’s no way they can beat the Rams 
  • Gameday 6:00 pm: Please God, let the Pats win! #SuperBowlLIII
Super Bowl Graph

Getting Personal

Charlie often revealed touching personal thoughts in his tweets. The Taylor Swift concert tweets are a case in point. Some of his sports tweets revealed the interplay of sports, memory, and the passage of time: 

Lots of memories watching a Yastrzemski (Mike) at Fenway this afternoon. It’s amazing how you can feel young again and so very old at the same time.

Charlie often tweeted about his efforts to keep up a regular exercise routine, yet still found ways to find humor in an ongoing debate in our field: 

Still searching for a new scale so I can lose weight. Tried to buy a vertical scale today. The salesperson laughed and said, ‘Oh honey, vertical scales aren’t real.’ Of course, she was right. #MeasurementLiteracy

It isn’t easy to put yourself out there like this, but Charlie does so gracefully.

A True Professional

Charlie has been a true professional for more than 30 years in the field, getting his start in the state testing world as a psychometrician at Advanced Systems in Measurement and Evaluation, the precursor to Measured Progress (now Cognia):

10/2/89: They sat me at a computer w/ a copy of Hambleton & Swaminathan and told me I was the Advanced Systems psychometrician. ‘Sure, we can do that. Piece of cake.’ Many thanks to Rich Hill and Stuart Kahl for taking a chance and letting me be a part of their amazing journey.

Those of us privileged to work with him for all or part of this journey are much better for it. He is a measurement professional who recognized that measurement is far from the most important part of the educational enterprise. Charlie relied on his deep knowledge and appreciation of history to share important educational and life lessons such as this tweet on Martin Luther King’s birthday:

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” #MLK.

Charlie both pushed and supported us to never lose sight of why we are doing this work. He has mentored many young and older professionals at the Center for the past 17 years. Everyone who has worked on a project with Charlie or has been fortunate enough to have him review our writing has learned something important. Most recently, Charlie has led our CenterLine blog work. Easily one of the best writers I know, Charlie is an amazingly supportive editor. He has the rare skill of not only helping writers improve what they wrote, but also helping them see what they could have written. He regularly reminds me of the importance of never losing the writer’s voice when offering comments and suggestions. Of course, he would try to lure us in with trick questions like this tweet from a recent RILS conference: 

Which comes first, the design of assessment systems or accountability systems? (There’s only one right answer.)

I will miss Charlie for so many reasons, not the least of which is that he enjoyed keeping me honest with tweets like these: 

With all this talk about Campbell’s Law, I have to believe that @ScottFMarion must be nearby

It also makes me proud and happy that being at the Center meant as much to Charlie as having Charlie at the Center meant to me – at least that’s how I’m choosing to read this tweet from last year’s 20th anniversary celebration: 

Moving celebration tonight of the @NCIEA1 20th anniversary. So proud to call this place home.

Passing the Torch

Charlie has learned his lessons from sports very well. He does not want to be that aging quarterback hanging on for one more season (I promise not to take any shots at Tom Brady here ). He is leaving the Center at the top of his game. I will miss being able to walk across the hall for some impromptu advice or just a conversation. I will smile often though thinking of his perfect one-liners and I know how I will find myself thinking, “What would Charlie say?”

I’ve been lucky to share an appreciation of history and historical figures with Charlie. He and I share a deep fondness for Jack and Bobbie Kennedy for the hope they represented and the eloquence with which they communicated that hope. During one of my last “begging sessions” asking him to stay on longer, he responded that he had been with several of our newer, very impressive, colleagues at meetings during the past few months; and then he borrowed from JFK’s inaugural, “the torch has been passed to a new generation” of Center professionals. 

As great as our team is here, there’s no question that there is only one Charlie. We will miss him, but wish him the very best and look forward to his continued Twitter presence!