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5 tips for evaluating youth programs

By Samantha Grant

Male youth filling out evaluation form
Do you do something for work that comes so naturally it’s almost hard to explain it to other people? I’ve spent my career conducting evaluations with youth. Youth evaluation is a language I speak fluently. Last month my colleague John Murray and I presented to Extension staff in Pennsylvania about evaluating youth programs. In this session we had to translate what we naturally do as evaluators. 

Maybe you’re new to evaluation or maybe you’ve been evaluating youth for years like me. From my experience, youth workers are natural evaluators because you are always asking questions about your programs. Have you found yourself thinking:

  • How can I make this program better for youth?
  • Why are youth struggling to come together as a team?
  • What could I plan that would get youth engaged?

If you nodded your head along with these questions, you’re a natural evaluator. (If you didn’t, start getting curious about your programs. Curiosity is a natural precursor to evaluation.) 

If you’re ready to refine your evaluation practice with youth, my top five tips for evaluating youth programs are:

  1. Know your audience. Find out more details about the youth group including academic level, attention span and how they’ve been involved in evaluation in the past. Youth are tested all the time, so you need to tell them why the evaluation matters.
  2. Get approval. Consent from parents; assent from youth. Let parents know you’re doing the evaluation. Youth under 18 cannot legally consent for themselves, but give youth the power to choose to be part of your evaluation. Their involvement can’t be tied to their continued participation in the program.
  3. Think about reading level. Reading level isn’t always tied to grade. If you’re working with a group of typical fourth graders, you can expect that half are reading below grade level. Make your questions as easy as possible so that everyone can understand them. Use a readability calculator to test the reading level. If youth struggle, read it for them.
  4. Be ready to explain. Evaluation isn’t like standardized test taking. Take time to ensure youth understand, and allow them to ask questions throughout. If your survey contains scaled questions, make sure they understand the rating scale.
  5. Test it out. Test the questions ahead of time. Do youth understand? What doesn’t make sense? Tell them: “Think about kids your age and let me know when you get to a question or spot that wouldn’t make sense to someone your age.” This way they don’t have to say that they are confused, they can answer for a friend.

Bonus tip: Be creative, not cutesy. Check out a blog post and video I’ve created on creative evaluation strategies.

What are your tips for evaluating youth programs?

-- Samantha Grant, REACH Lab research project director

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