As I was reading a number of evaluation reports recently, the oddity of evaluation jargon struck me. It isn’t that we have unusual technical terms—all fields do—but that we use everyday words in unusual ways. It is as if we speak in a code that only another evaluator can decipher.
I jotted down five words and phrases that we all use when we speak and write about evaluation. On the surface, their meanings seem perfectly clear. However, they can be used for good and bad. How are you using them?
As in: The data suggest that the program was effective.
Pros: Suggest is often used to avoid words such as prove and demonstrate—a softening of this is so to this seems likely. Appropriate qualification of evaluation results is desirable.
Cons: Suggest is sometimes used to inflate weak evidence. Any evaluation—strong or weak—can be said to suggest something about the effectiveness of a program. Claiming that weak evidence suggests a conclusion overstates the case.
Of special note: Data, evaluations, findings, and the like cannot suggest anything. Authors suggest, and they are responsible for their claims.
(2) Mixed Methods
As in: Our client requested a mixed-methods evaluation.
Pros: Those who focus on mixed methods have developed thoughtful ways of integrating qualitative and quantitative methods. Thoughtful is desirable.
Cons: All evaluations use some combination of qualitative and quantitative methods, so any evaluation can claim to use—thoughtfully or not—a mixed-methods approach. A request for a mixed-methods evaluation can mean that clients are seeking an elusive middle ground—a place where qualitative methods tell the program’s story in a way that insiders find convincing and quantitative methods tell the program’s story in a way that outsiders find convincing. The middle ground frequently does not exist.
As in: We know from the literature that teachers are the most important school-time factor influencing student achievement.
Cons: The word know implies that claims to the contrary are unfounded. This shuts down discussion on topics for which there is almost always some debate. One could argue that the weight of evidence is overwhelming, the consensus in the field is X, or we hold this belief as a given. Claiming that we know, with rare exception, overstates the case.
(4) Nonetheless [we can believe the results]
As in: The evaluation has flaws, nonetheless it reaches important conclusions.
Pros: If the phrase is followed by a rationale (…because of the following reasons…), this turn of phrase might indicate something quite important.
Cons: All evaluations have flaws, and it is the duty of evaluators to bring them to the attention of readers. If the reader is then asked to ignore the flaws, without being given a reason, it is at best confusing and at worst misleading.
(5) Validated Measure
As in: We used the XYZ assessment, a previously validated measure.
Cons: Validity is not a characteristic of a measure. A measure is valid for a particular group of people for a particular purpose in a particular context at a specific point in time. This means that evaluators must make the case that all of the measures that they used were appropriate in the context of the evaluation.
The Bottom Line
I am guilty of sometimes using bad language. We all are. But language matters, even in causal conversations among knowledgeable peers. Bad language leads to bad thinking, as my mother always said. So I will endeavor to watch my language and make her proud. I hope you will too.