True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain,
hazardous, and conflicting information.

— Winston Churchill, 1874-1965
Politician, Orator, Statesman, Painter


What does “successful” look like?
How can we tell the difference between successful and not-so-successful?
How do we get better?

We want — and need — to measure what we’re doing and whether we’re having an effect (and determine why we’re effective or not), several times over the life of a project.

At the task level, we may measure informally, while at the goals level we’ll probably use more formal approaches to collecting and analyzing data, testing models, and documenting and reporting our findings.

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Assessment is the organized and ongoing process of collecting and analyzing data and information
so as to describe activities, practices, progress, and other dimensions of performance.

The word comes first from the Latin, then the Middle English, for sit beside. An assessor was a judge’s assistant, the individual responsible for setting fines – not, however, for determining guilt or innocence.

Assessment is often considered a formative process – along the way, concurrent with
active implementation of a program, focused more on improvement and progress rather than impact or results.

FORMATIVE assessments are done to improve programs, products, personnel, policies,
or practices; to form or shape the “thing being studied” (Patton, 2002, p. 220).

Evaluations are systematic investigations that involve synthesizing and integrating assessment data and then using this information to make inferences and judgments about the merit (i.e., quality, excellence), worth (i.e., value, cost-effectiveness), and/or significance (i.e., importance, impact) of a project, program, or organization (Scriven, 1998).

OutcomesEvalEvaluations are often considered summative processes – done at an end point or key milestone, focused on “did it work,” on making statements about effectiveness and outcomes.

SUMMATIVE evaluation “. . . is evaluation done for, or by, any observers or decision makers (by contrast with developers) who need evaluative conclusions for any reasons besides development” (Scriven, 1991, p. 20).


CRITERION (singular)/CRITERIA (plural)
What we want to measure, a dimension along which performance is rated or judged or ranked: The test.


Each criterion must fall within the domain that is being evaluated.

For example, selecting “neatness” as a criterion for judging creativity would likely be viewed as a poor choice (although many highly creative people are also highly organized), while “ideational fluency” would be both evidence-based and useful.

Criteria are defined by indicators, descriptors, and other elements of an evaluation plan or system. Levels of performance on criteria are determined by standards – within an industry, as defined by a profession, or within an organization for programs and activities.


INDICATORS are performance metrics – signals, measures, yardsticks, markers, guides – used to measure an attribute of the thing being evaluated; a dimension of the desired outcome. How will we know whether we are making progress toward our goals and objectives?

Indicators are almost always expressed as quantitative (numerical data) classifications, scales, ranks, etc. Although the observations or measurements might be qualitative (textual data), they are often (not always!) assigned or “turned into” numbers. Math done on the latter can be tricky, so beware.

In case you missed it . . .
Basically Speaking: Where are we going and what are we doing? »



• Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods. (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
• Scriven, M. (1991). Beyond formative and summative evaluation. In M. W. McLaughlin & D. C. Phillips (eds.) Evaluation: At Quarter Century, pp. 18-64. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
• Scriven, M. (1998). Minimalist theory of evaluation: The least theory that practice requires.  American Journal of Evaluation. 19(1), 57-70.