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Stanford Report, October 10, 2001

Lee Cronbach, pioneer in education psychology, dead at 85


Lee J. Cronbach, an education professor who made major contributions in the fields of educational psychology and psychological testing during a career that spanned over five decades, died at age 85 on Oct. 1. Cronbach, who was the Vida Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, passed away at his home in Palo Alto with his daughter, Janet, at his bedside. The cause of death was congestive heart failure.

Cronbach's research generally fell into three categories: measurement theory, program evaluation and instruction.

Fifty years ago, Cronbach developed the most frequently used measure of the reliability of a psychological or educational test, known as "Cronbach's alpha." This method of measurement, described in an oft-cited work, "Coefficient Alpha and the Internal Structure of Tests," ensured that an individual's test performance could be consistently tracked. This work led to his developing a theory of test reliability, "Generalizability Theory," a comprehensive statistical model for identifying sources of measurement error. Cronbach also did pathbreaking work on the interpretation of test scores, including a seminal paper, "Construct Validity in Psychological Tests."

"Lee was highly respected and he was a towering intellect," said Rich Shavelson, professor of education who was dean of the school until last year. Shavelson, who was a doctoral student of Cronbach's in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said that Cronbach "seemed to be ahead of everything," and that his critiques of colleagues' work "led to the improvement of scientific methods used in psychology and education."

"Measurement theory was where he was a giant," added Shavelson.

Cronbach's research went beyond measurement and testing, however, and included work on evaluation and instruction. In the 1970s, Cronbach directed the Stanford Evaluation Consortium, a research, service and training organization sponsored by the School of Education and including faculty from the communication and psychology departments. The consortium worked with the state of California to examine its relationships with local school districts, among other projects.

Cronbach's evaluation research influenced program evaluations across many fields, from health programs to juvenile delinquency programs; his work emphasized the limitations of randomized field trials, the importance of local contexts on performance, and the social and political aspects of program evaluation. This research "raised the level of evaluations significantly," Shavelson said.

Cronbach's work on instruction was also well known, Shavelson said. Cronbach argued as early as the 1950s that learning environments should be designed to match the abilities of individuals. When he served as president of the American Psychological Association in 1956-57, he sought to bridge the gap between different theories of psychology by showing the importance of both the environment and individual behavior, Shavelson said.

Cronbach's professional honors were numerous. He was president of the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the Psychometric Society, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received many honorary degrees, including ones from Yeshiva University, the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and the University of Chicago.

Cronbach was born in 1916 in Fresno. Cronbach's association with Stanford began early: As a student in 1921, he was given the Stanford-Binet IQ test by his school psychologist, who, amazed by his high IQ, suggested he enroll as a gifted student in a program directed by Stanford Professor Lewis Terman. Cronbach later referred to himself as one of the "Terman brats."

Later, Cronbach received a bachelor's degree from Fresno State College in 1934. He went on to earn a master's degree at the University of California-Berkeley in 1937, and in 1940 Cronbach was awarded a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Chicago. In the late 1930s, Cronbach began his career as a mathematics and chemistry teacher at Fresno High School. He later became an associate professor of psychology at State College of Washington, then moved on to teach at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois. In 1964 he came to Stanford, where he was named Vida Jacks Professor of Education. Cronbach retired from teaching in 1980 but remained active in debates on educational and psychological testing.

Cronbach's wife, Helen, of Palo Alto, and his three children, Janet and Bob, who reside in the Bay Area, and Joyce, who lives in Canada, survive him. A private memorial service will be held. Contributions in his memory may be made in lieu of flowers to the American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102 (1-888-588-2372, ext. 1).