This post has been a long time coming.

In the not so distant past, I tried to publicly criticize (I know, I know…) how authors of an evaluation book mis-taught formative and summative. Not such a big deal if they are personally in error, but a much larger offense if publishing. As a brief review:

Formative When evaluation findings are used, typically internally, to make improvements to the organization. As Stake put it, “when the cook tastes the soup.”

Summative When evaluation findings are used, typically externally, to make judgments about the organization. As Stake put it, “when the guests taste the soup.”

The authors in question tried to establish that formative was when an evaluation looks at the activities of an organization. By contrast, they said summative was when the evaluation looks at the impacts of those activities. Of course, this is not exactly the case. For example, evaluative information about the impacts of an organization can be used to make judgments, yes (that’s summative), but can also be used to make improvements to the organization (formative, here). So the authors were incorrectly conflating why organizations do evaluation (formative or summative) with the organizational areas an evaluation can examine (activities v. impacts).

My rant about this mistake began with “These ‘experts’…” and ended with “…and make twice as much as me.” (In other words, a typical tirade from me.)

But my listeners shut it down. They agreed that I was correct, but condemned my urge to be so public in my critique, saying something to the effect of “a lot of people make this same mistake.” I am fairly sure the larger mistake may be to let such misconceptions go unturned.

And now you have had your vocabulary lesson for the day. It might make you smarter than your average evaluator.

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