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How to Focus an Evaluation

You've been asked to evaluate a program, but you're not sure where you need to go or how you're going to get there. Focusing an evaluation is a little bit like choosing a map. There are wonderful maps that show the world in detail. They not only have all the continents, but show the bodies of water, the countries, the mountains, their elevations, and almost all cities. Very complete, but very overwhelming.

Then there are very specific maps, some which only show a particular street or a small group of streets. This will serve its purpose of allowing you to find a specific house, but difficult to place that house within the larger context of its city or state or even country. You choose a map by where you're trying to go, how you're going to get there (a map of the roads doesn't do you any good if you're trying to get from Boston to Paris), who's going to use the map (is it the driver, the pilot or the ship's captain) and what information you need to get to your destination.
You focus an evaluation the same way as you choose a map. You need to know who will be using your evaluation, what specifics you and they are going to be looking for, what information you need to get, how you can get this information and then draw your map on how to find these specifics. Books have been written about this (a great one to use is "How to Focus an Evaluation" by Brian M. Stecher and W. Alan Davis).
Determine the purpose of the evaluation. Who are the users of the program? Are they the same ones who want the evaluation? What do they want evaluated? (Who's going to be going on the trip, and do they all want to go the same place in the same way?)

Collect and read as much as you can about the program. Talk to people and ask questions. (After all, it's the people who live there who can draw the best map. Would you want a map drawn by someone who has never seen or heard of the place?)

Describe the program. Write it down, draw it up, see if you really understand the program and what is requested. (If your map doesn't look similar to an existing map, are you sure it's the right map?)

Visualize what you will do. Assess your strengths and weaknesses in performing this evaluation. Do you have the necessary tools to complete this evaluation? (If you don't have a boat, an airplane or a bridge, how are you going to get across that body of water?)

Share your preliminary discoveries with the staff. Are you really heading in the right direction? (Even Columbus got lost.)

Be prepared to stop and ask directions along the way. Even the best maps can become out of date quickly. The user may have changed the focus along the way, you may have gotten off the road, or maybe a detour has been set up. Be sure to keep your map and your focus up to date. (Have you ever ridden around town with someone who absolutely refuses to ask directions, yet insists on driving around aimlessly?)
And finally, don't be afraid to go back to the point where you started and try your map again. You may get where you want to go a lot faster the second time.
by Bea Stankard