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Robert Glaser, psychologist who shaped student testing

ROBERT GLASER

NEW YORK - Robert Glaser, a cognitive psychologist who helped define the terms of the national debate over student testing and who pioneered ways of measuring not only how students learn but how teachers teach, died Feb. 4 in Pittsburgh. He was 91.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said a spokesman for the University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center, which Dr. Glaser helped found in 1963.

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Dr. Glaser was probably best known for promoting a standardized test that became the norm for the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state-by-state evaluation commonly known as The Nation’s Report Card.

The method, which he did not invent but championed and named “criterion-referenced testing,’’ measured not just what students knew but how well they were learning.

Rather than measuring students in comparison with one another, as IQ and other traditional standardized tests do, criterion tests were mainly designed to compare students’ results with their own previous test results. While not obviously different from traditional tests like the SATs, which the Report Card used at first, Dr. Glaser argued successfully that criterion tests were the nimbler tool for helping teachers adjust lessons to their students’ needs.

It became the standard testing system for the periodic “Report Cards’’ exams in math, reading, history, and science given to fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders throughout the country.

Colleagues and family said his views about the science of education changed the field and influenced the work of three generations of researchers.

“He was one of the first to use testing to measure how we should be teaching, not just to sort’’ high and low achievers, said Lauren B. Resnick, a psychology professor and former head of the learning research center that Dr. Glaser helped found.

Robert Glaser was born in Providence and grew up in New York.

In the Army during World War II, he helped conduct psychological testing on trainees for bomber crews.

He and his wife, Sylvia, met as graduate students at Indiana University, where both studied under the celebrated behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, who became a professor at Harvard. Dr. Glaser received his doctorate in psychology at Indiana and in 1956 became an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where he remained for the rest of his career.

He leaves two daughters; two grandchildren; a great-grandchild; and a sister. Dr. Glaser’s wife died in 2001.

Dr. Glaser was initially a disciple of Skinner’s, embracing the view that learning is a process of behavior modification.

But Dr. Glaser developed a broader view of the mission of education. In the 1987 report for the National Academy of Education, he wrote that education should be informational, aesthetic, and moral. It should equip people with “resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good.’’

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