A Conversation with Tom Rochon, ERB President
Tom welcomes your observations or questions on any topic related to education and assessment. Please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Tom Rochon, ERB’s new President, is no stranger to big jobs. On January 1, 2018, he assumed leadership of ERB, following the 14-year tenure of Dr. Dave Clune.
Tom’s previous career has been in higher education, including faculty appointments at Princeton University and Claremont Graduate University as well as a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. Administratively, Tom served as dean and provost at Claremont Graduate University, as provost at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and as president of Ithaca College in New York. Prior positions also include service as Executive Director of the GRE programs at the Educational Testing Service.
We sat down with Tom recently to chat about his new role, his passion for the ERB membership, his vision for the future, and more. (We even talked about his unique taste in socks.)
You’ve had an impressive career in academia prior to joining ERB. Is there a position of which you are particularly proud?
What strikes me more is that I didn’t have a career plan or map. I never had an aspiration to any position I’ve held, other than being a professor. Every opportunity has come along more or less unexpectedly, and every position has felt like a culmination, a coalescing, of all I had done before. My biggest take-away from previous experience is to have great respect for the insights of the collective mind. A professor tries to be the smartest person in the room. A good administrator doesn’t need to be and doesn’t try to be. I take pride in being a really good listener and basing my decisions on the insights of lots of different people.
Initially, I had a wide range of thoughts about what [I should] do after being a college president. I thought I might return to the classroom for example to renew my direct connection with students. But when I learned about ERB’s organization, structure, and membership focus, it became clear that ERB had everything I was looking for. The day before I was offered the job, I had a “this has to be it for me” moment, and I dumped two decades’ worth of syllabi and lecture notes that I had been carrying from job to job.
What attracted you to ERB?
More than anything, it was the member structure. We have relationships that go beyond vendor and client – we are partners in the school’s educational mission. That partnership is today more important than ever. The role of the teacher is changing to one of an experienced guide. This changes the role of assessment from a single moment when everyone sits down to do a standardized test to something very different. Assessment is evolving to be continuous, often in real time, and connected to the work a student is doing. Put another way, assessment is becoming integral to the learning process rather than a summation of learning that stands apart from the process.
ERB brings great value to member schools as they undergo this shift. Schools need a partner in handling the flood of data and in managing the analysis of that data to get clear, individual, actionable insights into student learning. I don’t believe any other testing organization is as well positioned as ERB to be that kind of partner in the learning process.
That is a big challenge. Why do you believe ERB is up to it?
Not many people know that ERB has fewer than 40 employees. Everything we create is through carefully vetted outside vendors. We’re quite nimble and able to make changes quickly. Combine that with being a listening-focused organization, dedicated to the service of our members, and we are well-positioned to meet members needs in a time of change and challenge.
For example, this summer, we roll out the fifth generation of the CTP. It’s going to look a bit different from past versions, for example with greater emphasis on assessing a student’s ability to reason and reach conclusions based on the information they have. Our score scale will make it easier to track student growth over time, and our score reports will be more interactive and intuitive. All of this is in response to member needs as we have heard them. At ERB, we can make these moves relatively quickly while a much larger testing organization might not be able to.
You co-hosted a “Fireside Chat” with ERB retiring President and CEO Dave Clune at the 2017 ERB Conference in Boston. What was the take-away from your first ERB conference?
It was a real eye-opener. It’s a very high-energy conference. I was elated to see so many members who use ERB data to generate insights about their school’s learning environment. There was a singleness of purpose and a desire to learn from each other that is unlike anything I had encountered in any other conference. Everyone at ERB feels a strong commitment to each and every member, a service ethic that readily translates to a partnership ethic. The conference is the place where that ethic comes to life.
You have experience in assessment from your management of the GRE program. How is this helping with your leadership of ERB?
My goal [for that job] was to make the GRE more accessible to potential graduate students who had been out of school for a while. I had lots of experience with that type of student at Claremont, one who put off graduate studies for several years because he or she was intimidated by standardized tests. It seemed very wrong to me that anyone should defer their educational goals because of a test. While I was executive director of GRE we worked out several ways to lower the psychological barriers. We took all the GRE test prep and put it online for free. We removed the most opaque types of questions from the test – known as the Analytical section – and substituted an opportunity to write two brief essays that are directly related to the kind of work one actually does in graduate school. This authentic testing directly measures the skills that are important in a student’s area of study.
After three years at GRE I returned to higher ed, but by then I had learned a great deal about what it takes to put together a quality assessment. I developed an appreciation for the many steps involved in creating tests. That includes the first and most important step of all: deciding what the most important educational outcomes are that you are trying to measure.
Talk about your vision for ERB.
My vision is very pragmatic: It is to deepen the relationship with our members so we can figure out together how to make assessments an authentic part of the learning experience. Assessment enhances a culture of learning in a school by enabling students to better understand themselves as learners, and by enabling teachers to better understand themselves as educators. But assessment can become a negative factor if the mission of the school becomes the quest to improve test scores. Authentic assessment is embedded in the learning process. Remarkably, Dave Clune and I didn’t meet each other until the hiring process was over. When we finally met we both discovered with some relief that we have very compatible ideas about assessment and education.
In keeping with ERB’s commitment to data presentation, here are a few data points about Tom Rochon:
A scholar of contemporary politics and social movements in Europe and the U.S., Tom is the author of five books and dozens of articles, including Culture Moves: Ideas, Activism and Changing Values, which received a Distinguished Scholarship Prize from the American Sociological Association and was named an Outstanding Academic Book in 1998 by Choice magazine, and Mobilizing for Peace: The Antinuclear Movement in Western Europe.
- He owns over 100 pairs of novelty socks. For the first day of the 2017 ERB conference, he wore a pair with a tape measure design. “When I became a college president my wife insisted that I needed to have a ‘thing.’ I wasn’t going to do bowties, so I chose socks.”
- A triple Wolverine, Tom received his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.—all in political science—from the University of Michigan.
- He spent a year in Japan as a Fulbright Lecturer at Kobe University, speaks Dutch and French, and can read Spanish and German.
- A self-taught amateur astronomer, Tom has a lifelong passion for the heavens. When he was in high school, he built a telescope and counts among his favorite literature Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall. During the 2017 solar eclipse, Tom observed the phenomenon while sitting on a bench beside the East River, wearing solar glasses and conducting an outdoor meeting with a colleague about ERB.
- He and his wife Amber live in Newtown, Conn., with their two young boys.
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