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What is an Evaluation?

As greater demands are placed on educational programs, there’s more of a need than ever to evaluate how things are going—check on progress, make course corrections, acknowledge accomplishments and build on them, learn from mistakes. To build powerful programs, you need comprehensive evaluation strategies that help you lay the foundation for success. The efficient development of an evaluation plan and the smart use of evaluation strategies empowers you and your team to develop and improve programs that have the greatest chance of helping kids learn.

To simplify the concept of evaluation, we suggest you think of it in terms of three major questions:

  1. Are you doing what you said you would do?
  2. How well is it (the project, program, or initiative) going?
  3. Is what you’re doing making a difference or having an impact?

Many labels are used to describe different types of evaluation, but there are two general types that are worth knowing about. The distinction between them is a useful one.


In most cases, evaluations combine formative and summative approaches. It’s important to know about the project/program implementation as well as outcomes. The use of both formative and summative strategies is also important because then you aren’t simply waiting for the long-term results to determine whether the project was successful.

Think of a formative evaluation (sometimes called process or implementation evaluations) as one that helps to form the project, since it occurs relatively early in the life of a project and can occur more than once. The focus is on the “development and improvement of a project” and can serve as data for summative evaluations at the end of a project.

Formative evaluations ask about a project’s progress:

  • Are components of the project being carried out as intended? If not, what has changed and why?
  • Is the project moving according to the projected timeline?
  • What is working well? What are the challenges?
  • Is the budget on track?
  • What needs to be done to ensure progress according to plan?

Think of a summative evaluation as one that measures the outcomes and impact of a project. Such evaluations examine what goals have been accomplished after a project or program has been completed. Summative data is the information you use to report to stakeholders and to make important decisions about whether to continue, adjust or modify, or abandon the course.

Common summative evaluation questions include ones like the following:

  • Were the project’s goals met?
  • What components of the project were the most effective?
  • How has teachers’ content knowledge been affected?
  • Are teachers incorporating new strategies into classroom practices?
  • What have students learned? How does their achievement compare to previous students? To others at the same grade level? In other schools, districts?