So What?

Putting Tests to the Test

March 17, 2017  • Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program

The biweekly “So What?” guide highlights advice, events, and tipsmostly from the advocacy and evaluation worlds, selected by the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program. We’re a consulting practice at the Aspen Institute that partners with foundations, nonprofit organizations, and individual funders to help them strengthen their efforts to bring about positive change in society.

Don’t get schooled, get learned

Though there is a notable penchant for testing in the United States, some countries and schools use tests much more sparingly to decide how well their schools are doing.  It turns out simple tools can provide useful insight into the difference between learning and schooling. (We tip our hat to our pals at the Aspen Institute’s Five Best Ideas of the Day for this link.) In India, a simple reading test accessible to teachers, parents, and children can reveal the skill level of students and provide a citizen-led approach to accountability. It’s a great example of evaluators including the community in the knowledge-making process—and being open to unexpected feedback. For more, check out this excellent guide from CDA Collaborative’s Sarah Cechvala.


At the heart of some of our work at APEP is the theory that language conveys attitudes, beliefs, and potential behavior. This assumption allows for the possibility of all sorts of tools and analyses. For example, the Gloom Index of Radiohead songs shows the emotional rollercoaster the tracks produce. Or for an even more turbulent ride, we can see the type and concentrations of emotions in Donald Trump’s speeches. But causality is tricky: we must inquire scientifically if Radiohead creates gloom or if the president stokes fear.  But try not to overdo it by reading too much into these existential office emails.

Data, data everywhere

The Millennium Villages Project (MVP), albeit costly, controversial, and complex, has produced a lovely dataset. The purpose of the MVP is to see if the Millennium Development Goals could be achieved at the local level. While we encourage you to check out ITAD’s evaluation, we just can’t say enough about this beautiful data, sitting like a lump of clay waiting to be sculpted by researchers. A shout out to Chris Barnett of ITAD for bringing this to our attention and to the Pelican platform for disseminating it. And for all the environmental data enthusiasts out there, your data will soon be relocating, so stay tuned!

So What?
Calling Congress Works
March 3, 2017 • Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program