By AnneMarie Hunter
Berry Family Distinguished Professor Dr. Brian French is committed to helping young people overcome challenges, achieve their potential, and live happier lives. Psychometrics, statistics, and measurements are the instruments through which French accomplishes these goals.
As director of Washington State University’s Learning and Performance Research Center (LPRC) and Psychometric Laboratory, French collaborates with his team to develop educational and psychological assessments through psychometrics. In this field, response-based methodologies, such as questionnaires and tests, are utilized to assess psychological constructs, as well as cognitive and physical capabilities.
The resulting educational and psychological measurements can then be used to create research-based solutions for challenges facing young people, both inside and outside the classroom. For example, French has worked for several years developing assessments to help increase safety for youth working in agricultural environments.
“Our assessments use a strength-based approach, rather than punitive, to help young people move forward in a positive way,” said French, who in June completed his term as associate dean for research and external funding in the College of Education.
During the past several years, the Washington Assessment of the Risks and Needs of Students (WARNS) project has been a key assessment tool for French and his team to help youth across the state. Originally developed in 2014 by Dr. Tom George, a senior researcher with the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, WARNS is an evidence-based assessment for middle and high school students. It examines youth experiences in six domains critical for healthy social, emotional, and educational development. The results help schools and youth service providers determine individual needs, in order to target interventions accordingly.
In 2018, the program moved to WSU, where French and his team continually make improvements to the WARNS content and process. As an example, the team developed a WARNS Remote Assessment Protocol in 2020. This version allowed school counselors and professionals to continue helping students during Covid-19, even though they were not physically in school. In May, French and his team were awarded a $1.2 million grant by the Institute of Education Sciences to further develop WARNS.
CONVERSATIONS FOR POSITIVE CHANGE
“WARNS can start conversations with students that lead to constructive outcomes,” said French, who was recently selected as a new member to the Washington State Academy of Sciences. “With WARNS assessments, intervention plans are created based on concrete information about students. For example, we learned through WARNS that a certain student was late for school every day she was getting her siblings ready for school. So, this student was allowed to have a later start time.”
Joan Kingrey, an educator and former WSU faculty member, believe WARNS is an invaluable tool for schools and communities nationwide.
“As an educator, I deeply understand and support an assessment that allows us to identify student risks and address their needs. When we can catch things early, we have every opportunity to change the course to a better future for our kids,” said Kingrey, who is also a donor to the Dean’s Excellence Fund. This fund has supported noteworthy research at WSU, including the WARNS project.
“WARNS can be a game-changer for students, families, and communities, as we move through these challenging times.”
With the new funding, French and the WARNS group, which includes Paul Stand, Chad Gotch, Marcus Poppen, and Bruce Austin, intend to expand use of these beneficial assessments nationwide.
SERVING OTHERS AND RECTIFYING INEQUITIES
From the beginning of his career, French observed inequities in psychometric measurement practices and has been a trailblazer to amend these.
“For too long the contextual factors an individual brings to an assessment have been neglected in educational and psychological measurement,” he said. “My lab examines new methods to bring context back to the assessment process. This will ensure information we use to make decisions about individuals and their development are fair and accurate.”
The vision that guides French today was shaped from experiences beginning in his childhood. Not only catalysts for his chosen field, these experiences inspired his commitment to service.
“I grew up in a single-parent home,” French said. “My mom taught us the value of hard work and to use our skills to assist others and better the world around us.”
By high school, French knew he wanted to help others through a career in research. “I spent hours asking questions and dreaming up theories, while I painted houses and landscaped yards,” he said.
French followed this research track as an undergraduate at Seattle University. Then, while conducting psychology experiments in graduate school at Purdue University, he unexpectedly discovered a passion for educational and psychological measurement.
“My ‘enlightenment’ happened when I heard a professor talk about test bias and fairness,” he said. “That talk instantly connected my own background with equity and fairness to methods and methodology. So, away I went in a different direction.”
There is irony in the fact French chose this new field which happens to have statistics at its core.
“I make the joke that I’m no good at numbers,” he said. “The greatest challenges I’ve had to overcome, related to my education and work, were always mathematics and tests. People laugh when I say this because most of my work today involves math and statistics.
“I really wasn’t very good at these subjects in high school and my undergraduate years. But, I had an influential statistics teacher who opened the door to how these topics can be used for good. So, I changed to a growth mindset and learned I could be good at these subjects with work and dedication.”
Mirroring his teacher’s approach, French now mentors his own students as they overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.
“It’s always a joy for me to work with colleagues and students to help them develop and go on to fulfill their vision,” he said. “The door was opened for me, so I see it as my job to hold that door open for others, so they can walk through and do work to improve situations and conditions for others.”
Dr. Chad Gotch is one of the students French mentored. He was also Gotch’s doctoral advisor.
“Dr. French gave me the courage and guidance to set ambitious goals,” said Gotch, who is now a faculty member in WSU’s Educational Psychology program. “I’ve achieved far more than I set out to do when I began my doctoral studies. Dr. French has been eternally supportive of my professional and personal growth. He opened opportunities for me and treated me like a valuable colleague from day one.”
Conversely, French equally values the contributions his students make to the collaborative research journey they share.
“Nothing I do is done in isolation,” French said. “Working together allows us to do more than as individuals and I’m very grateful for the team I work with.”
French recognizes and acknowledges there are also others outside of the lab who have contributed to this success.
“I have a deep sense of gratitude for donors who give to WSU,” he said. “Donor support allows many of us to carry out work that would not be possible otherwise. Most recently, I’m thankful for the Berry Family Distinguished Professorship.
“It has helped me support my students in their development, offer workshops, write textbooks with colleagues in Spain to support Spanish-speaking scholars, and continue to advance the WARNS system. The generosity and confidence the Berry Family has placed in me and my work is appreciated and I honor that confidence.”