Schwandt on Defining Evaluation

Thomas Schwandt unpacks the concept of ‘evaluation’:

To characterize educational evaluation in a straightforward and precise way is nearly impossible for several reasons (Kellaghan, Stufflebeam, & Wingate, 2003; Nevo, 2006). First, although some evaluators aim to distinguish the terms assessment (pupil performance), appraisal (teacher performance), and evaluation, such efforts are not always successful or consistent (e.g., personnel evaluation, teacher assessment) in day-to-day uses of the terms. Thus, the term evaluation can encompass a broad range of objects of examination, including, for example, teachers’ qualifications; teachers’ classroom management, instruction, or pedagogy; students’ academic  performance;  students’ conduct; administrators’ performance; individual school and school system performance; school reform initiatives; curriculum; projects (e.g., evaluating a one-time venture in one school that involves retired persons working with elementary school children on reading skills); programs (e.g., evaluating an after-school intervention adopted across a school district aimed at enhancing math skills in underachieving students); policies; instructional materials; instructional technologies; facilities; and so on. Each of these objects of evaluation has its own literature and special concerns.

Second, any or all of these potential objects of evaluation can be examined in different institutional locations, including, for example, public and private elementary and secondary schools, public and private higher education systems (community colleges, universities), informal education settings (adult learning centers), and educational and training programs in the private sector as well as in government agencies. Moreover, practices and assumptions of educational evaluation vary across the social-political settings or contexts of institutions; for example, Anglo-American societies reflect different concerns about educational evaluation than Latin American and African societies.

Third, the practice (and purpose and means) of educational evaluation can be examined from different social locations. For example, issues surrounding the design and conduct of educational evaluation can be studied from the point of view of individual evaluation researchers (or teams of evaluators) contracting with a client or responding to a tender or request for proposal for a particular study. …

Fourth, there are different and conflicting schools of thought, so to speak, on how to do educational evaluation. As is evident in several of the chapters in this handbook, one (and perhaps the dominant) school of thought growing out of psychometrics in educational psychology associates educational evaluation with assessment, measurement, testing, and, in general, the quantification of educational performances of varying kinds and comparisons of such performances using indicators. … A second approach to evaluation arose in curriculum evaluation in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970s largely in opposition to the influence of educational psychology and its almost exclusive focus on evaluation as measurement. …

Fifth, although evaluation is a disciplined— organized, deliberate, methodical, systematic— practice (or, more accurately, a collection of disciplined practices), it is not a professionalized and credentialed practice, at least in the sense of how we understand the professions of medicine, law, and accounting. It does not have what could be readily identified as a proprietary core body of knowledge or a set of techniques, procedures, and investigatory tools that is unique to the practice. Its practitioners are a diverse lot as well. Although perhaps some 10,000 individuals at least nominally self-identify as evaluators and belong to one or more of the many national and international evaluation associations and societies around the world (and only a few of these are specifically concerned with educational evaluation), hundreds of thousands of teachers and professors, corporate trainers and human resource professionals, as well as school, university, and college administrators routinely engage in practices of educational evaluation. …

Given this varied and diverse landscape, it can be reasonably argued that, to talk responsibly of the philosophical, ethical, and political foundations of educational evaluation, one would have to develop an account of each of the various practices of educational evaluation and its founding assumptions, central ideas, and ways of proceeding. Or one would have to undertake something like a sociopolitical history of the purpose and use of evaluation in a given educational domain—for example, the evaluation of teacher training programs, higher education institutions, elementary school curriculum, school effectiveness, national educational policy, and so on—and the relationship between ways of conceiving of and conducting evaluation and implicit and explicit theories of education.

In contrast, it is possible to regard evaluation as a distinct and relatively well-defined social undertaking. That is, despite the diversity and scope of what goes on in the name of educational evaluation, from a sociological, pragmatic, and practice perspective, there is a strong sense that evaluation forms some kind of satisfactorily coherent entity.


Schwandt, Thomas A. 2009. “Globalizing Influences on the Western Evaluation Imaginary.”  In The SAGE International Handbook of Educational Evaluation, Katherine E. Ryan & J. Bradley Cousins, eds. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications. pp. 19-22. || Amazon || WorldCat


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